Here's the definition of a universal property in Wikipedia:

(where $U:D\to C$ is a functor and $X$ is an object in $C$)

A terminal morphism from $U$ to $X$ is a final object in the category $(U\downarrow X)$ of morphisms from $U$ to $X$, i.e. consists of a pair $(A,\Phi)$ where $A$ is an object of $D$ and $\Phi: U(A) \to X$ is a morphism in $C$, such that the following terminal property is satisfied:

  • Whenever $Y$ is an object of $D$ and $f: U(Y) \to X$ is a morphism in $C$, then there exists a unique morphism $g: Y \to A$ such that the following diagram commutes:

$\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ $enter image description here

So I'm trying to "unpack" this definition and figure out what each of the things here "means". E.g. what does it become in the case of a limit, or something.

  • A limit is an example of a terminal morphism, right? And a colimit an initial morphism?
  • Does $U$ usually represent a diagram? In the case of a limit, does it represent the diagram we want to take the limit of?
  • Whatever is $X$? I honestly have no clue here. What's the analog in the case of a limit?
  • What does a morphism from $U\to X$ even mean? What does it mean in the case of a limit? I've seen morphisms from a diagram to an object in colimits.
  • In the case of a limit, is $(U\downarrow X)$ the category of cones? But how can each cone be a morphism from $U$ to something (I thought it was a morphism from something to $U$)?
  • $A$ (or $U(A)$) corresponds to the actual thing we construct, like the source of a limit or the target of a colimit? But what is $\Phi$? In the construction of a limit, there's a morphism from the limit to the diagram, this seems wrong.

My guess is that $X$ represents some sort of "subsetting" of the candidates for the object so you don't have to quantify over everything like you do with cones and the limit. Is that right?

Edit: So as a short summary -- it turns out $X$ represents (in the case of limits and colimits) the diagram we're trying to take the limit of, while $A$ represents the actual limit object (with its morphism $\Phi$). $U$ is the diagonal functor, because the limit is constructed here as an object in the category of diagrams of shape at most that of $X$.

  • $\begingroup$ It seems to me that this formalism is really not well adapted to talk about limits. It is definitely not what I would have chosen to describe a general notion of universal property. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2020 at 21:48

1 Answer 1


First of all, that wikipedia definition is not great. You should however go back to it once your wrap your head around all this stuff.

When one first encounters the definition of a universal construction, it's a bit weird. The true way to understand this concept is with examples: just keep looking at examples until it makes sense.

Let's start with a simple example. Let $X, Y$ be sets. Then (one possible way) I can define the disjoint union is $$ X \amalg Y = \{(x, 0), (y, 1) \mid x \in X, y \in Y \} $$ and we can define injection morphisms $$i_X: X \to X \amalg Y \qquad i_X(x) = (x, 0)\\ i_Y: Y \to X \amalg Y \qquad i_Y(y) = (y, 1) $$ Now suppose I have a function $f: X \to Z$ and $g: Y \to Z$. Then I can construct a unique (this is really key here) map $h: X \amalg Y \to Z$ where $$ h(x, 0) = f(x) \text{ and } h(y, 1) = g(y) $$ Why is it unique? Because the definition depends directly on $f$ and $g$. So what this really gives me is this diagram enter image description here

Given the arrows $f:X \to Z, g: Y \to Z$, we can get a unique arrow $h: X \amalg Y \to Z$. The forced existence of $h$ is indicated by the dashed arrow.

This is an example of a universal construction. Actually, this is an example of a colimit, which I will explain. This happens in so many places in math that there's a name for it, and thats what this universal arrow stuff is about.

So suppose $\mathcal{C}$ and $\mathcal{D}$ are categories with a functor $F: \mathcal{C} \to \mathcal{D}$. A universal morphism from an object $D$ to the functor $F$ is a pair $(C, u: D \to F(C))$ such that, for any $f: D \to F(C')$, the following diagram holds. enter image description here

So if you have a morphism $f: D \to F(C')$, you automatically get a morphism $h: C \to C'$.

A colimit is an example of this construction. To understand this, you first need to understand the diagonal functor $$ \Delta: \mathcal{C} \to \mathcal{C}^J. $$ Here, $\mathcal{C}^J$ is the functor category of functors $F: J \to C$, with morphisms as natural transformations. This functor $\Delta$ takes each object $C$ to the functor $F_C: J \to C$, where for each $j \in J$ $$ F(j) = C. $$ So it sends it to a constant valued functor.

Now when we speak of a "colimit" in a category $\mathcal{C}$ it's with respect to some functor $F: J \to C$. This is an element of the functor category $\mathcal{C}^J$. So, we define a colimit to be a universal morphism from $F$ to $\Delta$. That is, $$ (\text{Colim }F, u: F \to \Delta(\text{Colim} F). $$ Note that $u$ is natural transformation; as I said earlier $\Delta$ sends objects to functors. So, you get the diagram enter image description here

However, this isn't very intuitive. A better way to look at this is to realize that if you have a natural transformation $u: F \to \Delta(\text{Colim } F)$, then you have a family of morphisms. How so? For each object $i \in J$, our natural transformation should give us a morphism $$ u_i: F(i) \to \Delta(\text{Colim } F)(i). $$ But $\Delta(\text{Colim } F)$ is a constant valued functor. So this really becomes a family of morphisms $$ u_i: F(i) \to \text{Colim }F. $$ This is usually how people define colimits, but since you asked how they're related to universal constructions, this is how. Anyways, one way to imagine the above diagram is to picture the one below. This isn't exactly precise, but it's a good way to imagine the colimit. enter image description here

Compare this diagram with the one in the beginning with the coproduct. If you understand that, then you can understand the concept of limits because limits are the same exact story, just with the arrows reversed.

  • $\begingroup$ beautiful diagram you have there, could you provide me the code please ? $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2020 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ This makes a lot of sense, thanks. By the way, there's a typo in the direction of your arrows for the coproduct injection map where you defined them. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2020 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ @jeanmfischer The LaTeX package I use is TikZCD, where CD stands for commutative diagrams. Here's the documentation with examples: ctan.math.washington.edu/tex-archive/graphics/pgf/contrib/… $\endgroup$
    – trujello
    Jan 18, 2020 at 18:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AbhimanyuPallaviSudhir thanks, i fixed the typo! Also, in the wikipedia definition, it is true that a universal morphism corresponds to an initial object in a comma category. This insight becomes important later on once you learn about the concept of Adjunctions. However, you should try to work this out yourself later on after you get the definition. Hope this helps! $\endgroup$
    – trujello
    Jan 18, 2020 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AbhimanyuPallaviSudhir Just to let you know, since the Wikipedia article you were concerned about was such a terrible disaster and embarrassment to math pedagogy, I updated the entire Wikipedia page on Universal Properties with better explanations, modern notation, math typeset, and diagrams. Whoever wrote the previous draft will hopefully never touch it again. $\endgroup$
    – trujello
    Jan 20, 2020 at 12:43

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