Class (set theory)

Last updated

In set theory and its applications throughout mathematics, a class is a collection of sets (or sometimes other mathematical objects) that can be unambiguously defined by a property that all its members share. Classes act as a way to have set-like collections while differing from sets as to avoid Russel's Paradox (See #Paradoxes). The precise definition of "class" depends on foundational context. In work on Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, the notion of class is informal, whereas other set theories, such as von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory, axiomatize the notion of "proper class", e.g., as entities that are not members of another entity.


A class that is not a set (informally in Zermelo–Fraenkel) is called a proper class, and a class that is a set is sometimes called a small class. For instance, the class of all ordinal numbers, and the class of all sets, are proper classes in many formal systems.

In Quine's set-theoretical writing, the phrase "ultimate class" is often used instead of the phrase "proper class" emphasising that in the systems he considers, certain classes cannot be members, and are thus the final term in any membership chain to which they belong.

Outside set theory, the word "class" is sometimes used synonymously with "set". This usage dates from a historical period where classes and sets were not distinguished as they are in modern set-theoretic terminology. Many discussions of "classes" in the 19th century and earlier are really referring to sets, or perhaps rather take place without considering that certain classes can fail to be sets.


The collection of all algebraic structures of a given type will usually be a proper class. Examples include the class of all groups, the class of all vector spaces, and many others. In category theory, a category whose collection of objects forms a proper class (or whose collection of morphisms forms a proper class) is called a large category.

The surreal numbers are a proper class of objects that have the properties of a field.

Within set theory, many collections of sets turn out to be proper classes. Examples include the class of all sets, the class of all ordinal numbers, and the class of all cardinal numbers.

One way to prove that a class is proper is to place it in bijection with the class of all ordinal numbers. This method is used, for example, in the proof that there is no free complete lattice on three or more generators.


The paradoxes of naive set theory can be explained in terms of the inconsistent tacit assumption that "all classes are sets". With a rigorous foundation, these paradoxes instead suggest proofs that certain classes are proper (i.e., that they are not sets). For example, Russell's paradox suggests a proof that the class of all sets which do not contain themselves is proper, and the Burali-Forti paradox suggests that the class of all ordinal numbers is proper. The paradoxes do not arise with classes because there is no notion of classes containing classes. Otherwise, one could, for example, define a class of all classes that do not contain themselves, which would lead to a Russell paradox for classes. A conglomerate, on the other hand, can have proper classes as members, although the theory of conglomerates is not yet well-established.[ citation needed ]

Classes in formal set theories

ZF set theory does not formalize the notion of classes, so each formula with classes must be reduced syntactically to a formula without classes. [1] For example, one can reduce the formula to . Semantically, in a metalanguage, the classes can be described as equivalence classes of logical formulas: If is a structure interpreting ZF, then the object language "class-builder expression" is interpreted in by the collection of all the elements from the domain of on which holds; thus, the class can be described as the set of all predicates equivalent to (which includes itself). In particular, one can identify the "class of all sets" with the set of all predicates equivalent to

Because classes do not have any formal status in the theory of ZF, the axioms of ZF do not immediately apply to classes. However, if an inaccessible cardinal is assumed, then the sets of smaller rank form a model of ZF (a Grothendieck universe), and its subsets can be thought of as "classes".

In ZF, the concept of a function can also be generalised to classes. A class function is not a function in the usual sense, since it is not a set; it is rather a formula with the property that for any set there is no more than one set such that the pair satisfies For example, the class function mapping each set to its successor may be expressed as the formula The fact that the ordered pair satisfies may be expressed with the shorthand notation

Another approach is taken by the von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel axioms (NBG); classes are the basic objects in this theory, and a set is then defined to be a class that is an element of some other class. However, the class existence axioms of NBG are restricted so that they only quantify over sets, rather than over all classes. This causes NBG to be a conservative extension of ZF.

Morse–Kelley set theory admits proper classes as basic objects, like NBG, but also allows quantification over all proper classes in its class existence axioms. This causes MK to be strictly stronger than both NBG and ZF.

In other set theories, such as New Foundations or the theory of semisets, the concept of "proper class" still makes sense (not all classes are sets) but the criterion of sethood is not closed under subsets. For example, any set theory with a universal set has proper classes which are subclasses of sets.


  1. "abeq2 - Metamath Proof Explorer". 1993-08-05. Retrieved 2016-03-09.

Related Research Articles

An axiom, postulate or assumption is a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments. The word comes from the Greek axíōma (ἀξίωμα) 'that which is thought worthy or fit' or 'that which commends itself as evident.'

In mathematics, the axiom of regularity is an axiom of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory that states that every non-empty set A contains an element that is disjoint from A. In first-order logic, the axiom reads:

In set theory, the axiom schema of replacement is a schema of axioms in Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF) that asserts that the image of any set under any definable mapping is also a set. It is necessary for the construction of certain infinite sets in ZF.

In set theory, Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, named after mathematicians Ernst Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel, is an axiomatic system that was proposed in the early twentieth century in order to formulate a theory of sets free of paradoxes such as Russell's paradox. Today, Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, with the historically controversial axiom of choice (AC) included, is the standard form of axiomatic set theory and as such is the most common foundation of mathematics. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice included is abbreviated ZFC, where C stands for "choice", and ZF refers to the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice excluded.

In axiomatic set theory and the branches of mathematics and philosophy that use it, the axiom of infinity is one of the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory. It guarantees the existence of at least one infinite set, namely a set containing the natural numbers. It was first published by Ernst Zermelo as part of his set theory in 1908.

Universe (mathematics) Collection that contains all the entities one wishes to consider in a given situation in mathematics

In mathematics, and particularly in set theory, category theory, type theory, and the foundations of mathematics, a universe is a collection that contains all the entities one wishes to consider in a given situation.

Zermelo set theory, as set out in an important paper in 1908 by Ernst Zermelo, is the ancestor of modern Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (ZF) and its extensions, such as von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG). It bears certain differences from its descendants, which are not always understood, and are frequently misquoted. This article sets out the original axioms, with the original text and original numbering.

In mathematics, in set theory, the constructible universe, denoted by L, is a particular class of sets that can be described entirely in terms of simpler sets. L is the union of the constructible hierarchyLα. It was introduced by Kurt Gödel in his 1938 paper "The Consistency of the Axiom of Choice and of the Generalized Continuum-Hypothesis". In this, he proved that the constructible universe is an inner model of ZF set theory, and also that the axiom of choice and the generalized continuum hypothesis are true in the constructible universe. This shows that both propositions are consistent with the basic axioms of set theory, if ZF itself is consistent. Since many other theorems only hold in systems in which one or both of the propositions is true, their consistency is an important result.

In the foundations of mathematics, von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG) is an axiomatic set theory that is a conservative extension of Zermelo–Fraenkel-Choice set theory (ZFC). NBG introduces the notion of class, which is a collection of sets defined by a formula whose quantifiers range only over sets. NBG can define classes that are larger than sets, such as the class of all sets and the class of all ordinals. Morse–Kelley set theory (MK) allows classes to be defined by formulas whose quantifiers range over classes. NBG is finitely axiomatizable, while ZFC and MK are not.

In mathematical logic, New Foundations (NF) is an axiomatic set theory, conceived by Willard Van Orman Quine as a simplification of the theory of types of Principia Mathematica. Quine first proposed NF in a 1937 article titled "New Foundations for Mathematical Logic"; hence the name. Much of this entry discusses NFU, an important variant of NF due to Jensen (1969) and exposited in Holmes (1998). In 1940 and in a revision of 1951, Quine introduced an extension of NF sometimes called "Mathematical Logic" or "ML", that included proper classes as well as sets.

In mathematical logic, positive set theory is the name for a class of alternative set theories in which the axiom of comprehension

The Kripke–Platek set theory (KP), pronounced, is an axiomatic set theory developed by Saul Kripke and Richard Platek.

In the foundations of mathematics, Morse–Kelley set theory (MK), Kelley–Morse set theory (KM), Morse–Tarski set theory (MT), Quine–Morse set theory (QM) or the system of Quine and Morse is a first-order axiomatic set theory that is closely related to von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory (NBG). While von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory restricts the bound variables in the schematic formula appearing in the axiom schema of Class Comprehension to range over sets alone, Morse–Kelley set theory allows these bound variables to range over proper classes as well as sets, as first suggested by Quine in 1940 for his system ML.

In mathematical logic, a Boolean-valued model is a generalization of the ordinary Tarskian notion of structure from model theory. In a Boolean-valued model, the truth values of propositions are not limited to "true" and "false", but instead take values in some fixed complete Boolean algebra.

In set theory, a branch of mathematics, a Reinhardt cardinal is a kind of large cardinal. Reinhardt cardinals are considered under ZF, because they are inconsistent with ZFC. They were suggested by American mathematician William Nelson Reinhardt (1939–1998).

Constructive set theory is an approach to mathematical constructivism following the program of axiomatic set theory. The same first-order language with "" and "" of classical set theory is usually used, so this is not to be confused with a constructive types approach. On the other hand, some constructive theories are indeed motivated by their interpretability in type theories.

An approach to the foundations of mathematics that is of relatively recent origin, Scott–Potter set theory is a collection of nested axiomatic set theories set out by the philosopher Michael Potter, building on earlier work by the mathematician Dana Scott and the philosopher George Boolos.

General set theory (GST) is George Boolos's (1998) name for a fragment of the axiomatic set theory Z. GST is sufficient for all mathematics not requiring infinite sets, and is the weakest known set theory whose theorems include the Peano axioms.

Pocket set theory (PST) is an alternative set theory in which there are only two infinite cardinal numbers, ℵ0 and c. The theory was first suggested by Rudy Rucker in his Infinity and the Mind. The details set out in this entry are due to the American mathematician Randall M. Holmes.

This is a glossary of set theory.