Coherence condition

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In mathematics, and particularly category theory a coherence condition is a collection of conditions requiring that various compositions of elementary morphisms are equal. Typically the elementary morphisms are part of the data of the category.

An illustrative example: a monoidal category[edit]

Part of the data of a monoidal category is a chosen morphism \alpha_{A,B,C}, called the associator:

\alpha_{A,B,C} \colon (A\otimes B)\otimes C \rightarrow A\otimes(B\otimes C)

for each triple of objects A,B,C in the category. Using compositions of these \alpha_{A,B,C}, one can construct a morphism

( \cdots ( A_N \otimes A_{N-1} ) \otimes A_{N-2} ) \otimes \cdots \otimes A_1) \rightarrow
 ( A_N \otimes ( A_{N-1}  \otimes \cdots \otimes ( A_2 \otimes A_1) \cdots ).

Actually, there are many ways to construct a morphism from

 ( \cdots ( A_N \otimes A_{N-1} ) \otimes \cdot ) \otimes A_2 ) \otimes A_1  )


 ( A_N \otimes ( A_{N-1}  \otimes \cdots \otimes ( A_2 \otimes A_1) \cdots )

as a composition of various \alpha_{A,B,C}. One coherence condition that is typically imposed is that these compositions are all equal.

Typically one proves a coherence condition using a coherence theorem, which states that one only needs to check a few equalities of compositions in order to know that the rest also hold. In the above example, one only needs to check that, for all quadruples of objects A,B,C,D, the following diagram commutes


Further examples[edit]

Two simple examples that illustrate the definition are as follows. Both are directly from the definition of a category.


Let f : AB be a morphism of a category containing two objects A and B. Associated with these objects are the identity morphisms 1A : AA and 1B : BB. By composing these with f, we construct two morphisms:

f o 1A : AB, and
1B o f : AB.

Both are morphisms between the same objects as f. We have, accordingly, the following coherence statement:

f o 1A   = f   = 1B o f.

Associativity of composition[edit]

Let f : AB, g : BC and h : CD be morphisms of a category containing objects A, B, C and D. By repeated composition, we can construct a morphism from A to D in two ways:

(h o g) o f : AD, and
h o (g o f) : AD.

We have now the following coherence statement:

(h o g) o f = h o (g o f).

In these two particular examples, the coherence statements are theorems for the case of an abstract category, since they follow directly from the axioms; in fact, they are axioms. For the case of a concrete mathematical structure, they can be viewed as conditions, namely as requirements for the mathematical structure under consideration to be a concrete category, requirements that such a structure may meet or fail to meet.


  • Mac Lane, Saunders (1971). "Categories for the working mathematician". Graduate texts in mathematics Springer-Verlag. Especially Chapter VII Part 2.