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Elementary remarks on units in monoidal categories

By Joachim Kock

Math. Proc. Cambridge Phil. Soc., 144 (2008), 53-76.


We explore an alternative definition of unit in a monoidal category originally due to Saavedra: a Saavedra unit is a cancellative idempotent (in a 1-categorical sense). This notion is more economical than the usual notion in terms of left-right constraints, and is motivated by higher category theory. To start, we describe the semi-monoidal category of all possible unit structures on a given semi-monoidal category and observe that it is contractible (if nonempty). Then we prove that the two notions of units are equivalent in a strong functorial sense. Next, it is shown that the unit compatibility condition for a (strong) monoidal functor is precisely the condition for the functor to lift to the categories of units, and it is explained how the notion of Saavedra unit naturally leads to the equivalent non-algebraic notion of fair monoidal category, where the contractible multitude of units is considered as a whole instead of choosing one unit. To finish, the lax version of the unit comparison is considered. The paper is self-contained. All arguments are elementary, some of them of a certain beauty.


Last updated: 2008-07-13 by Joachim Kock.