I'm confused about seemingly different notions of a Cartan subalgebra of a real semisimple Lie algebra, and I'm wondering if there are common inequivalent definitions.

In the book Lie Groups: Beyond an Introduction, Knapp defines a Cartan subalgebra, $\frak{h}_0$, of a real semisimple Lie algebra, $\frak{g}_0$, to be a subalgebra whose complexification, $\frak{h}_0^{\mathbb{C}}$, is a Cartan subalgebra of $\frak{g}_0^{\mathbb{C}}$. A Cartan subalgebra of a complex semisimple Lie algebra, $\frak{g}$, is defined to be a subalgebra which is maximal among the set of abelian subalgebras, $\frak{h} \subset \frak{g}$, which have ad$_{\frak{g}}\frak{h}$ simultaneously diagonable.

Now given a real semisimple Lie algebra, $\frak{g}_0$, we have a Cartan decomposition $\frak{g}_0=\frak{k}_0\oplus \frak{p}_0$, where $\frak{k}_0$ is the $+1$ eigenspace of a Cartan involution and $\frak{p}_0$ is the $-1$ eigenspace. If $\frak{a}_0\subset \frak{p}_0$ is a maximal abelian subalgebra of $\frak{p}_0$, and $\mathfrak{t}_0 \subset Z_{\mathfrak{k}_0}(\frak{a}_0)$ is a maximal abelian subalgebra of the centralizer of $\frak{a}_0$ in $\frak{k}_0$ (I really wish $\frak{k}$ didn't look exactly like $\frak{t}$), then under Knapp's definition, $\frak{a}_0 \oplus \frak{t}_0$ is a Cartan subalgebra of $\frak{g}_0$.

Alternatively, I have seen some authors claim that $\frak{a}_0$ (by itself) is a Cartan subalgebra of $\frak{g}_0$ (without stating a definition of Cartan subalgebra). In one such instance, $\frak{g}_0$ is the Lie algebra of a semisimple Lie group which has no compact factors. I'm not sure whether this condition makes the two notions coincide? Maybe if $Z_{\frak{k}_0}(\frak{a}_0)$ were an ideal of $\frak{g}_0$, the absence of compact factors would force $Z_{\frak{k}_0}(\frak{a}_0)=0$, but I don't see why $Z_{\frak{k}_0}(\frak{a}_0)$ should be an ideal of $\frak{g}_0$.


The first definition corresponds to maximal tori and should be used; the second corresponds to maximal split tori.

The answer by ಠ_ಠ correctly states the definition of Cartan subalgebras for general Lie algebras: It is a subalgebra that is nilpotent and its own normaliser. In the case at hand, it is useful to introduce the following concepts:

Let $\mathfrak{g}$ be a semisimple Lie algebra over any field of characteristic 0. A subalgebra of $\mathfrak{g}$ is called toral if it is abelian and consists of semisimple elements. It is called split toral if it is abelian and consists of diagonalisable elements.

(Of course this is made to resemble tori and split tori in the group setting; I will just write "(split) torus" occasionally.)

Now one has:

Lemma: For $\mathfrak{g}$ as above, a subalgebra is maximal toral iff it is a Cartan subalgebra (= self-normalising & nilpotent).

(This is e.g. exercise 3 to ch. VII $\S$ 2 in Bourbaki's Lie Groups and Lie Algebras.)

As long as one works over algebraically closed fields, one rarely hears of toral and split toral subalgebras, since by algebraic closedness, toral is the same as split toral ("every torus is split"), so that by the lemma:

For a subalgebra of a semisimple Lie algebra over $\mathbb{C}$,

maximal toral = maximal split toral = Cartan subalgebra.

But over other fields, in our case $\mathbb{R}$, we have distinct notions of

  1. maximal toral subalgebras, and
  2. maximal split toral subalgebras.

By the lemma, 1. corresponds to the first (Knapp's) definition you give, and the generally accepted notion of Cartan subalgebras.

The second usage that you describe corresponds to 2. That is, what they call a Cartan subalgebra there is actually a maximal split toral subalgebra (in the group setting, it would be a maximal split torus, as opposed to a maximal torus). I have not seen this usage myself and would advise against it, since it does not match the general definition of Cartan subalgebra. Also, it would make the notion not invariant under scalar extension. Calling $\mathfrak{a}_0$ a maximal split torus is much better.

As to your last question, even in split Lie algebras, i.e. when there exists a split maximal torus [Beware the order of words: this is a maximal torus which happens to be split; not, as in notion 2, a maximal one among the split tori], the second usage would be more restrictive, since there can still be maximal tori which are not split.

-- Example: $\mathfrak{g_0} = \mathfrak{sl}_2(\mathbb{R}) = \lbrace \pmatrix{a & b \\ c &-a } : a,b,c \in \mathbb{R}\rbrace$. Then the second usage sees the split Cartan subalgebras (= one-dimensional subspaces) in $\mathfrak{p}_0 = \pmatrix{a & b \\ b &-a }$, but misses the non-split one that constitutes $\mathfrak{k}_0$, $\pmatrix{0 & b \\ -b &0 }$. --

If $\mathfrak{g}_0$ is not split, notion 2 does not even give a subset of notion 1, but they are disjoint: The ones in notion 2 have dimension strictly less than those in notion 1. And $\mathfrak{g}_0$ can still be far from compact. As an example, the following 8-dimensional real Lie algebra is a matrix representation of the quasi-split form of type $A_2$: $\mathfrak{g}_0 = \lbrace \begin{pmatrix} a+bi & c+di & ei\\ f+gi & -2bi & -c+di\\ hi & -f+gi & -a+bi \end{pmatrix} : a, ..., h \in \mathbb{R} \rbrace$; according to the nomenclature here, one might call this $\mathfrak{su}_{1,2}$.

One has $\mathfrak{k}_0 = \begin{pmatrix} bi & -f+gi & hi\\ f+gi & -2bi & f+gi\\ hi & -f+gi & bi \end{pmatrix}$ (i.e. $a=0, c=-f, g=d, h=e$) and

$\mathfrak{p}_0 = \begin{pmatrix} a & c+di & ei\\ c-di & 0 & -c+di\\ -ei & -c-di & -a \end{pmatrix}$ (i.e. $b=0, c=f, g =-d, h=-e$).

The maximal split tori $\mathfrak{a}_0$ in this case are the one-dimensional subspaces of $\mathfrak{p}_0$. But one can compute how each of them has a non-trivial centraliser in $\mathfrak{k}_0$ which has to be added to get a maximal torus = Cartan subalgebra in the generally accepted sense; the most obvious choice being $\mathfrak{a}_0 = \begin{pmatrix} a & 0 & 0\\ 0 & 0 & 0\\ 0 & 0 & -a \end{pmatrix}$ which demands $\mathfrak{t}_0 = \begin{pmatrix} bi & 0 & 0\\ 0 & -2bi & 0\\ 0 & 0 & bi \end{pmatrix}$ as a complement, so that $\mathfrak{a}_0 \oplus \mathfrak{t}_0$ is a maximal torus and becomes the standard maximal split = split maximal torus in the complexification $\mathfrak{g}_{0}^\mathbb{C} \simeq \mathfrak{sl}_3(\mathbb{C})$.


As far as I know the "correct" general definition of a Cartan subalgebra for any Lie algebra over any field $\mathbb{K}$ is that a Cartan subalgebra of a Lie $\mathbb{K}$-algebra $\mathfrak{g}$ is a nilpotent subalgebra $\mathfrak{h} \leq \mathfrak{g}$ which equals its own normalizer, i.e. $\operatorname{nor}_\mathfrak{g}(\mathfrak{h}) = \mathfrak{h}$.

This should coincide with every other definition of a Cartan subalgebra given in other texts. In particular, it coincides with your first definition of a Cartan subalgebra of a complex semisimple Lie algebra being a maximal among abelian subalgebras which consist of semisimple elements.

This definition also works for Lie algebras over commutative rings, though I don't know if this definition is still useful in such generality.


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