In my previous blog post, Programming with Universal Constructions, I mentioned in passing that one-to-one mappings between sets of morphisms are often a manifestation of adjunctions between functors. In fact, an adjunction just extends a universal construction over the whole category (or two categories, in general). It combines the mapping-in with the mapping-out conditions. One functor (traditionally called the left adjoint) prepares the input for mapping out, and the other (the right adjoint) prepares the output for mapping in. The trick is to find a pair of functors that complement each other: there are as many mapping-outs from one functor as there are mapping-ins to the other functor.

To gain some insight, let’s dig deeper into the examples from my previous post.

The defining property of a product was the universal mapping-in condition. For every object c equipped with a pair of morphisms going to, respectively, a and b, there was a unique morphism h mapping c to the product a \times b. The commuting condition ensured that the correspondence went both ways, that is, given an h, the two morphisms were uniquely determined.

A pair of morphisms can be seen as a single morphism in a product category C\times C. So, really, we have an isomorphism between hom-sets in two categories, one in C\times C and the other in C. We can also define two functors going between these categories. An arbitrary object c in C is mapped by the diagonal functor \Delta to a pair \langle c, c\rangle in C\times C. That’s our left functor. It prepares the source for mapping out. The right functor maps an arbitrary pair \langle a, b\rangle to the product a \times b in C. That’s our target for mapping in.

The adjunction is the (natural) isomorphism of the two hom-sets:

(C\times C)(\Delta c, \langle a, b\rangle) \cong C(c, a \times b)

Let’s develop this intuition. As usual in category theory, an object is defined by its morphisms. A product is defined by the mapping-in property, the totality of morphisms incoming from all other objects. Hence we are interested in the hom-set between an arbitrary object c and our product a \times b. This is the right hand side of the picture. On the left, we are considering the mapping-out morphism from the object \langle c, c \rangle, which is the result of applying the functor \Delta to c. Thus an adjunction relates objects that are defined by their mapping-in property and objects defined by their mapping-out property.

Another way of looking at the pair of adjoint functors is to see them as being approximately the inverse of each other. Of course, they can’t, because the two categories in question are not isomorphic. Intuitively, C\times C is “much bigger” than C. The functor that assigns the product a \times b to every pair \langle a, b \rangle  cannot be injective. It must map many different pairs to the same (up to isomorphism) product. In the process, it “forgets” some of the information, just like the number 12 forgets whether it was obtained by multiplying 2 and 6 or 3 and 4. Common examples of this forgetfulness are isomorphisms such as

a \times b \cong b \times a


(a \times b) \times c \cong a \times (b \times c)

Since the product functor loses some information, its left adjoint must somehow compensate for it, essentially by making stuff up. Because the adjunction is a natural transformation, it must do it uniformly across the whole category. Given a generic object c, the only way it can produce a pair of objects is to duplicate c. Hence the diagonal functor \Delta. You might say that \Delta “freely” generates a pair. In almost every adjunction you can observe this interplay of “freeness” and “forgetfulness.” I’m using these therm loosely, but I can be excused, because there is no formal definition of forgetful (and therefore free or cofree) functors.

Left adjoints often create free stuff. The mnemonic is that “the left” is “liberal.” Right adjoints, on the other hand, are “conservative.” They only use as much data as is strictly necessary and not an iota more (they also preserve limits, which the left adjoints are free to ignore). This is all relative and, as we’ll see later, the same functor may be the left adjoint to one functor and the right adjoint to another.

Because of this lossiness, a round trip using both functors doesn’t produce an identity. It is however “related” to the identity functor. The combination left-after-right produces an object that can be mapped back to the original object. Conversely, right-after-left has a mapping from the identity functor. These two give rise to natural transformations that are called, respectively, the counit \varepsilon and the unit \eta.

Here, the combination diagonal functor after the product functor takes a pair \langle a, b\rangle to the pair \langle a \times b, a \times b\rangle. The counit \varepsilon then maps it back to \langle a, b\rangle using a pair of projections \langle \pi_1, \pi_2\rangle (which is a single morphism in C \times C). It’s easy to see that the family of such morphisms defines a natural transformation.

If we think for a moment in terms of set elements, then for every element of the target object, the counit extracts a pair of elements of the source object (the objects here are pairs of sets). Note that this mapping is not injective and, therefore, not invertible.

The other composition–the product functor after the diagonal functor–maps an object c to c \times c. The component of the unit natural transformation, \eta_c \colon c \to c \times c, is implemented using the universal property of the product. Indeed, such a morphism is uniquely determined by a pair of identity morphsims \langle id_c, id_c \rangle. Again, when we vary c, these morphisms combine to form a natural transformation.

Thinking in terms of set elements, the unit inserts an element of the set c in the target set. And again, this is not an injective map, so it cannot be inverted.

Although in an arbitrary category we cannot talk about elements, a lot of intuitions from Set carry over to a more general setting. In a category with a terminal object, for instance, we can talk about global elements as mappings from the terminal object. In the absence of the terminal object, we may use other objects to define generalized elements. This is all in the true spirit of category theory, which defines all properties of objects in terms of morphisms.

Every construction in category theory has its dual, and the product is no exception.

A coproduct is defined by a mapping out property. For every pair of morphisms from, respectively, a and b to the common target c there is a unique mapping out from the coproduct a + b to c. In programming, this is called case analysis: a function from a sum type is implemented using two functions corresponding to two cases. Conversely, given a mapping out of a coproduct, the two functions are uniquely determined due to the commuting conditions (this was all discussed in the previous post).

As before, this one-to-one correspondence can be neatly encapsulated as an adjunction. This time, however, the coproduct functor is the left adjoint of the diagonal functor.

The coproduct is still the “forgetful” part of the duo, but now the diagonal functor plays the role of the cofree funtor, relative to the coproduct. Again, I’m using these terms loosely.

The counit now works in the category C and  it “extracts a value” from the symmetric coproduct of  c with c. It does it by “pattern matching” and applying the identity morphism.

The unit is more interesting. It’s built from two injections, or two constructors, as we call them in programming.

I find it fascinating that the simple diagonal functor can be used to define both products and coproducts. Moreover, using terse categorical notation, this whole blog post up to this point can be summarized by a single formula.

That’s the power of adjunctions.

There is one more very important adjunction that every programmer should know: the exponential, or the currying adjunction. The exponential, a.k.a. the function type, is the right adjoint to the product functor. What’s the product functor? Product is a bifunctor, or a functor from C \times C to C. But if you fix one of the arguments, it just becomes a regular functor. We’re interested in the functor (-) \times b or, more explicitly:

(-) \times b : a \to a \times b

It’s a functor that multiplies its argument by some fixed object b. We are using this functor to define the exponential. The exponential a^b is defined by the mapping-in property.  The mappings out of the product c \times b to a are in one to one correspondence with morphisms from an arbitrary object c to the exponential a^b .

C(c \times b, a) \cong C(c, a^b)

The exponential a^b is an object representing the set of morphisms from b to a, and the two directions of the isomorphism above are called curry and uncurry.

This is exactly the meaning of the universal property of the exponential I discussed in my previous post.

The counit for this adjunction extracts a value from the product of the function type (the exponential) and its argument. It’s just the evaluation morphism: it applies a function to its argument.

The unit injects a value of type c into a function type b \to c \times b. The unit is just the curried version of the product constructor.

I want you to look closely at this formula through your programming glasses. The target of the unit is the type:

b -> (c, b)

You may recognize it as the state monad, with b representing the state. The unit is nothing else but the natural transformation whose component we call return. Coincidence? Not really! Look at the component of the counit:

(b -> a, b) -> a

It’s the extract of the Store comonad.

It turns out that every adjunction gives rise to both a monad and a comonad. Not only that, every monad and every comonad give rise to adjunctions.

It seems like, in category theory, if you dig deep enough, everything is related to everything in some meaningful way. And every time you revisit a topic, you discover new insights. That’s what makes category theory so exciting.