||This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (November 2012)|
In set theory, a universal set is a set which contains all objects, including itself. In set theory as usually formulated, the conception of a set of all sets leads to a paradox. The reason for this lies with Zermelo's axiom of comprehension: for any formula and set A, there exists a set
which contains exactly those elements x of A that satisfy exists. If the universal set V existed and the axiom of separation applied to it, then Russell's paradox would arise from
More generally, for any set A we can prove that
is not an element of A.
A second difficulty is that the power set of the set of all sets would be a subset of the set of all sets, provided that both exist. This conflicts with Cantor's theorem that the power set of any set (whether infinite or not) always has strictly higher cardinality than the set itself.
The idea of a universal set seems intuitively desirable in the Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, particularly because most versions of this theory do allow the use of quantifiers over all sets (see universal quantifier). This is handled by allowing carefully circumscribed mention of V and similar large collections as proper classes. In theories in which the universe is a proper class, is not true because proper classes cannot be elements.
Set theories with a universal set 
There are set theories known to be consistent (if the usual set theory is consistent) in which the universal set V does exist (and is true). In these theories, Zermelo's axiom of separation does not hold in general, and the axiom of comprehension of naive set theory is restricted in a different way.
The most widely studied set theory with a universal set is Willard Van Orman Quine’s New Foundations. Alonzo Church and Arnold Oberschelp also published work on such set theories. Church speculated that his theory might be extended in a manner consistent with Quine’s, but this is not possible for Oberschelp’s, since in it the singleton function is provably a set, which leads immediately to paradox in New Foundations.
See also 
- Forster 1995 p. 1.
- Church 1974 p. 308. See also Forster 1995 p. 136 or 2001 p. 17.
- Oberschelp 1973 p. 40.
- Holmes 1998 p. 110.
- Alonzo Church (1974). “Set Theory with a Universal Set,” Proceedings of the Tarski Symposium. Proceedings of Symposia in Pure Mathematics XXV, ed. L. Henkin, American Mathematical Society, pp. 297–308.
- T. E. Forster (1995). Set Theory with a Universal Set: Exploring an Untyped Universe (Oxford Logic Guides 31). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-851477-8.
- T. E. Forster (2001). “Church’s Set Theory with a Universal Set.”
- Bibliography: Set Theory with a Universal Set, originated by T. E. Forster and maintained by Randall Holmes at Boise State University.
- Randall Holmes (1998). Elementary Set theory with a Universal Set, volume 10 of the Cahiers du Centre de Logique, Academia, Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium).
- Arnold Oberschelp (1973). “Set Theory over Classes,” Dissertationes Mathematicae 106.
- Willard Van Orman Quine (1937) “New Foundations for Mathematical Logic,” American Mathematical Monthly 44, pp. 70–80.