If the definition of Initial Algebra is:

"An object is initial if there exists a unique morphism from the object to every object in the category"

Why do we need such object, and could any one give an example ?

  • $\begingroup$ The quote only define "initial" not "initial algebra". $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2013 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ Algebra is pair of (S,F) where S is a set and F is the functions on this set $\endgroup$
    – M.M
    Jan 17, 2013 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


An initial algebra is an initial object in the category of $F$-algebras for a given endofunctor $F : \mathcal{C} \rightarrow \mathcal{C}$.

This construction is widely used to gives semantics to data-structures in (functional) programming languages. Intuitively, the functor $F$ captures the "shape" of the data-structure (e.g., $F(X) = 1 + A \times X$, with $A$ a fixed set for instance).

The underlying set $\mu F$ of the initial algebra $\langle \mu F, \alpha \rangle$ intuitively captures the set of syntactic expressions you can build by induction on the shape functor (e.g., for the previous functor with $A = \{a,b \}$, $\mu F = \{(1), (a,1), (b,1), (a,a,1), (a,b,1) \ldots \}$ is the set of finite lists of $A$-elements).

The initiality is the key property to construct inductive function (see catamorphism). Some excellent references on this topic:

  • $\begingroup$ What are $1$, $+$, an $\times$ notations in F(X) definition above? $\endgroup$
    – qartal
    May 22, 2015 at 19:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ terminal object, coproduct and product (respectively) in C $\endgroup$
    – Romuald
    Jul 9, 2015 at 21:19

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