Mac Lane, Bourbaki, and Adjoints Redux


Saunders Mac Lane famously remarked that “Bourbaki just missed” formulating adjoints in a 1948 appendix (written no doubt by Pierre Samuel) to an early draft of Algebre–which then had to wait until Daniel Kan’s 1958 paper on adjoint functors. But Mac Lane was using the orthodox treatment of adjoints that only contemplates the object-to-object morphisms within a category, i.e., homomorphisms. When Samuel’s treatment is reconsidered in view of the treatment of adjoints using heteromorphisms (hets) or chimera morphisms (object-to-object morphisms between objects in different categories), then he, in effect, isolated the concept of a left representation solving a universal mapping problem. When dualized to obtain the concept of a right representation, the two halves only need to be united to obtain an adjunction. Thus Samuel was only a now-simple dualization away for formulating adjoints in 1948. Apparently, Bodo Pareigis’ 1970 text was the first and perhaps only text to give the heterodox “new characterization” (i.e., heteromorphic treatment) of adjoints. Orthodox category theory uses various relatively artificial devices to avoid formally recognizing hets–even though hets are routinely used by the working mathematician. Finally we consider a “philosophical” question as to whether the most important concept in category theory is the notion of an adjunction or the notion of a representation giving a universal mapping property (where adjunctions arise as the special case of a bi-representation of dual universal mapping problems).

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