Complete lattice

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In mathematics, a complete lattice is a partially ordered set in which all subsets have both a supremum (join) and an infimum (meet). Specifically, every non-empty finite lattice is complete. Complete lattices appear in many applications in mathematics and computer science. Being a special instance of lattices, they are studied both in order theory and universal algebra.


Complete lattices must not be confused with complete partial orders (cpos), which constitute a strictly more general class of partially ordered sets. More specific complete lattices are complete Boolean algebras and complete Heyting algebras (locales).

Formal definition

A partially ordered set (L, ≤) is a complete lattice if every subset A of L has both a greatest lower bound (the infimum, also called the meet) and a least upper bound (the supremum, also called the join) in (L, ≤).

The meet is denoted by , and the join by .

In the special case where A is the empty set, the meet of A will be the greatest element of L. Likewise, the join of the empty set yields the least element. Since the definition also assures the existence of binary meets and joins, complete lattices thus form a special class of bounded lattices.

More implications of the above definition are discussed in the article on completeness properties in order theory.

Complete semilattices

In order theory, arbitrary meets can be expressed in terms of arbitrary joins and vice versa (for details, see completeness (order theory)). In effect, this means that it is sufficient to require the existence of either all meets or all joins to obtain the class of all complete lattices.

As a consequence, some authors use the terms complete meet-semilattice or complete join-semilattice as another way to refer to complete lattices. Though similar on objects, the terms entail different notions of homomorphism, as will be explained in the below section on morphisms.

On the other hand, some authors have no use for this distinction of morphisms (especially since the emerging concepts of "complete semilattice morphisms" can as well be specified in general terms). Consequently, complete meet-semilattices have also been defined as those meet-semilattices that are also complete partial orders. This concept is arguably the "most complete" notion of a meet-semilattice that is not yet a lattice (in fact, only the top element may be missing). This discussion is also found in the article on semilattices.

Complete sublattices

A sublattice M of a complete lattice L is called a complete sublattice of L if for every subset A of M the elements and , as defined in L, are actually in M. [1]

If the above requirement is lessened to require only non-empty meet and joins to be in L, the sublattice M is called a closed sublattice of M.


Locally finite complete lattices

A complete lattice L is said to be locally finite if the supremum of any infinite subset is equal to 1, or equivalently, the set is finite for any . The lattice (N, |) is locally finite. Note that in this lattice, the element generally denoted "0" is actually 1 and vice versa.

Morphisms of complete lattices

The traditional morphisms between complete lattices are the complete homomorphisms (or complete lattice homomorphisms). These are characterized as functions that preserve all joins and all meets. Explicitly, this means that a function f: L→M between two complete lattices L and M is a complete homomorphism if

for all subsets A of L. Such functions are automatically monotonic, but the condition of being a complete homomorphism is in fact much more specific. For this reason, it can be useful to consider weaker notions of morphisms, that are only required to preserve all joins (giving a category Sup) or all meets (giving a category Inf), which are indeed inequivalent conditions. This notion may be considered as a homomorphism of complete meet-semilattices or complete join-semilattices, respectively.

Furthermore, morphisms that preserve all joins are equivalently characterized as the lower adjoint part of a unique Galois connection. Each of these determines a unique upper adjoint in the inverse direction that preserves all meets. Hence, considering complete lattices with complete semilattice morphisms boils down to considering Galois connections as morphisms. This also yields the insight that the introduced morphisms do basically describe just two different categories of complete lattices: one with complete homomorphisms and one with meet-preserving functions (upper adjoints), dual to the one with join-preserving mappings (lower adjoints).

Free construction and completion

Free "complete semilattices"

As usual, the construction of free objects depends on the chosen class of morphisms. Let us first consider functions that preserve all joins (i.e. lower adjoints of Galois connections), since this case is simpler than the situation for complete homomorphisms. Using the aforementioned terminology, this could be called a free complete join-semilattice.

Using the standard definition from universal algebra, a free complete lattice over a generating set S is a complete lattice L together with a function i:SL, such that any function f from S to the underlying set of some complete lattice M can be factored uniquely through a morphism f° from L to M. Stated differently, for every element s of S we find that f(s) = f°(i(s)) and that f° is the only morphism with this property. These conditions basically amount to saying that there is a functor from the category of sets and functions to the category of complete lattices and join-preserving functions which is left adjoint to the forgetful functor from complete lattices to their underlying sets.

Free complete lattices in this sense can be constructed very easily: the complete lattice generated by some set S is just the powerset 2S, i.e. the set of all subsets of S, ordered by subset inclusion. The required unit i:S→2S maps any element s of S to the singleton set {s}. Given a mapping f as above, the function f°:2SM is defined by


Then f° transforms unions into suprema and thus preserves joins.

Our considerations also yield a free construction for morphisms that do preserve meets instead of joins (i.e. upper adjoints of Galois connections). In fact, we merely have to dualize what was said above: free objects are given as powersets ordered by reverse inclusion, such that set union provides the meet operation, and the function f° is defined in terms of meets instead of joins. The result of this construction could be called a free complete meet-semilattice. One should also note how these free constructions extend those that are used to obtain free semilattices, where we only need to consider finite sets.

Free complete lattices

The situation for complete lattices with complete homomorphisms obviously is more intricate. In fact, free complete lattices do generally not exist. Of course, one can formulate a word problem similar to the one for the case of lattices, but the collection of all possible words (or "terms") in this case would be a proper class, because arbitrary meets and joins comprise operations for argument-sets of every cardinality.

This property in itself is not a problem: as the case of free complete semilattices above shows, it can well be that the solution of the word problem leaves only a set of equivalence classes. In other words, it is possible that proper classes of the class of all terms have the same meaning and are thus identified in the free construction. However, the equivalence classes for the word problem of complete lattices are "too small", such that the free complete lattice would still be a proper class, which is not allowed.

Now one might still hope that there are some useful cases where the set of generators is sufficiently small for a free complete lattice to exist. Unfortunately, the size limit is very low and we have the following theorem:

The free complete lattice on three generators does not exist; it is a proper class.

A proof of this statement is given by Johnstone; [2] the original argument is attributed to Alfred W. Hales; [3] see also the article on free lattices.


If a complete lattice is freely generated from a given poset used in place of the set of generators considered above, then one speaks of a completion of the poset. The definition of the result of this operation is similar to the above definition of free objects, where "sets" and "functions" are replaced by "posets" and "monotone mappings". Likewise, one can describe the completion process as a functor from the category of posets with monotone functions to some category of complete lattices with appropriate morphisms that is left adjoint to the forgetful functor in the converse direction.

As long as one considers meet- or join-preserving functions as morphisms, this can easily be achieved through the so-called Dedekind–MacNeille completion. For this process, elements of the poset are mapped to (Dedekind-) cuts, which can then be mapped to the underlying posets of arbitrary complete lattices in much the same way as done for sets and free complete (semi-) lattices above.

The aforementioned result that free complete lattices do not exist entails that an according free construction from a poset is not possible either. This is easily seen by considering posets with a discrete order, where every element only relates to itself. These are exactly the free posets on an underlying set. Would there be a free construction of complete lattices from posets, then both constructions could be composed, which contradicts the negative result above.


Already G. Birkhoff's Lattice Theory book [4] contains a very useful representation method. It associates a complete lattice to any binary relation between two sets by constructing a Galois connection from the relation, which then leads to two dually isomorphic closure systems. Closure systems are intersection-closed families of sets. When ordered by the subset relation , they are complete lattices.

A special instance of Birkhoff's construction starts from an arbitrary poset (P,) and constructs the Galois connection from the order relation between P and itself. The resulting complete lattice is the Dedekind-MacNeille completion. When this completion is applied to a poset that already is a complete lattice, then the result is isomorphic to the original one. Thus we immediately find that every complete lattice is represented by Birkhoff's method, up to isomorphism.

The construction is utilized in formal concept analysis, where one represents real-word data by binary relations (called formal contexts) and uses the associated complete lattices (called concept lattices) for data analysis. The mathematics behind formal concept analysis therefore is the theory of complete lattices.

Another representation is obtained as follows: A subset of a complete lattice is itself a complete lattice (when ordered with the induced order) if and only if it is the image of an increasing and idempotent (but not necessarily extensive) self-map. The identity mapping obviously has these two properties. Thus all complete lattices occur.

Further results

Besides the previous representation results, there are some other statements that can be made about complete lattices, or that take a particularly simple form in this case. An example is the Knaster–Tarski theorem, which states that the set of fixed points of a monotone function on a complete lattice is again a complete lattice. This is easily seen to be a generalization of the above observation about the images of increasing and idempotent functions, since these are instances of the theorem.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Order theory is a branch of mathematics which investigates the intuitive notion of order using binary relations. It provides a formal framework for describing statements such as "this is less than that" or "this precedes that". This article introduces the field and provides basic definitions. A list of order-theoretic terms can be found in the order theory glossary.

This is a glossary of some terms used in various branches of mathematics that are related to the fields of order, lattice, and domain theory. Note that there is a structured list of order topics available as well. Other helpful resources might be the following overview articles:

A lattice is an abstract structure studied in the mathematical subdisciplines of order theory and abstract algebra. It consists of a partially ordered set in which every two elements have a unique supremum and a unique infimum. An example is given by the natural numbers, partially ordered by divisibility, for which the unique supremum is the least common multiple and the unique infimum is the greatest common divisor.

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In the mathematical area of order theory, one often speaks about functions that preserve certain limits, i.e. certain suprema or infima. Roughly speaking, these functions map the supremum/infimum of a set to the supremum/infimum of the image of the set. Depending on the type of sets for which a function satisfies this property, it may preserve finite, directed, non-empty, or just arbitrary suprema or infima. Each of these requirements appears naturally and frequently in many areas of order theory and there are various important relationships among these concepts and other notions such as monotonicity. If the implication of limit preservation is inverted, such that the existence of limits in the range of a function implies the existence of limits in the domain, then one obtains functions that are limit-reflecting.

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In mathematics, especially in order theory, a complete Heyting algebra is a Heyting algebra that is complete as a lattice. Complete Heyting algebras are the objects of three different categories; the category CHey, the category Loc of locales, and its opposite, the category Frm of frames. Although these three categories contain the same objects, they differ in their morphisms, and thus get distinct names. Only the morphisms of CHey are homomorphisms of complete Heyting algebras.

In the mathematical area of order theory, the compact elements or finite elements of a partially ordered set are those elements that cannot be subsumed by a supremum of any non-empty directed set that does not already contain members above the compact element. This notion of compactness simultaneously generalizes the notions of finite sets in set theory, compact sets in topology, and finitely generated modules in algebra.

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In mathematics, a complete Boolean algebra is a Boolean algebra in which every subset has a supremum. Complete Boolean algebras are used to construct Boolean-valued models of set theory in the theory of forcing. Every Boolean algebra A has an essentially unique completion, which is a complete Boolean algebra containing A such that every element is the supremum of some subset of A. As a partially ordered set, this completion of A is the Dedekind–MacNeille completion.

In the mathematical area of order theory, a completely distributive lattice is a complete lattice in which arbitrary joins distribute over arbitrary meets.

In mathematics, a Riesz space, lattice-ordered vector space or vector lattice is a partially ordered vector space where the order structure is a lattice.

In mathematics, in the area of order theory, a free lattice is the free object corresponding to a lattice. As free objects, they have the universal property.

In mathematical optimization, ordinal optimization is the maximization of functions taking values in a partially ordered set ("poset"). Ordinal optimization has applications in the theory of queuing networks.

In the mathematics of matroids and lattices, a geometric lattice is a finite atomistic semimodular lattice, and a matroid lattice is an atomistic semimodular lattice without the assumptions of finiteness. Geometric lattices and matroid lattices, respectively, form the lattices of flats of finite and infinite matroids, and every geometric or matroid lattice comes from a matroid in this way.


  1. Burris, Stanley N., and H.P. Sankappanavar, H. P., 1981. A Course in Universal Algebra. Springer-Verlag. ISBN   3-540-90578-2 (A monograph available free online).
  2. P. T. Johnstone, Stone Spaces, Cambridge University Press, 1982; (see paragraph 4.7)
  3. A. W. Hales, On the non-existence of free complete Boolean algebras, Fundamenta Mathematicae 54: pp.45-66.
  4. Garrett Birkhoff, Lattice Theory, AMS Colloquium Publications Vol. 25, ISBN   978-0821810255