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From: Colin McLarty <colin.mclarty <at> case.edu>
Subject: Mac Lane's Idea of Structure versus Weil's
Newsgroups: gmane.science.mathematics.categories
Date: Sunday 27th May 2012 14:07:21 UTC (over 6 years ago)
On Sat, May 26, 2012 at 7:48 PM, Michael Barr  wrote:

> Let me point out that not every structure comes with an obvious notion of
> morphism.

This is entirely true on Bourbaki's theory of structures.  Mike gives
topological spaces as a good example.  Should open sets be preserved
by morphisms? or reflected? or both?

Each Bourbaki structure comes with a unique obvious notion of
isomorphism: a bijection which preserves and reflects all the data.
Each one comes with as many possible definitions of morphism as there
are ways to choose which data to preserve and which to reflect.  Weil
correctly understood this, as shown in the quote:

\begin{quotation} As you know, my honorable colleague Mac~Lane
maintains every notion of structure necessarily brings with it a
notion of homomorphism, which consists of indicating, for each of the
data that make up the structure, which ones behave covariantly and
which contravariantly [\dots] what do you think we can gain from this
kind of consideration? (Weil letter to Chevalley 1951).\end{quotation}

But Saunders was not thinking of any formal definition of "structure".
  He meant that in fact wherever you see mathematicians using some
notion of space or algebra, or whatever, you will see a notion of
homomorphism used with it.   And he was largely right, though he also
helped to make this more strictly true by convincing people it was a
useful perspective.

There was by then a well-established notion of topological space with
continuous functions as morphisms (reflecting open sets).  An
important subclass of morphisms was open functions, defined as
continuous and preserving open sets.  Nobody studied topological
spaces plus functions which merely preserve open sets (without also
reflecting them).

And Saunders knew that homomorphisms in his sense need not be
functions in the strict sense.  He knew algebraic geometry used
functions which are not everywhere defined.  Functional analysis used
"functions" which have no well defined value at any single point.

Weil correctly understood that a structure in his sense admits many
different notions of morphism.  But he was committed to a general set
theoretic theory of "structure," so he struggled with that, and got
Bourbaki to struggle with it (as seen in Le Tribu in 1952), and
Bourbaki failed to make anything useful of it.

The more categorical members of Bourbaki never achieved a general
theory of "structure" either.  But they created many extremely useful
and now widely used categorical tools.

I will mention that recent philosophers of mathematics have been
satisfied with simpler set theoretic theories of structure where data
are always preserved.   These philosophers are little aware of
topological spaces, let alone say uniform spaces or local rings, and
so unaware of the complexities Bourbaki faced.


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