Abstract: There are a dozen definitions of weak higher categories, all of which loosen the notion of composition of arrows. A new approach is presented here, where instead the notion of identity arrow is weakened — these are tentatively called fair categories. The approach is simplicial in spirit, but the usual simplicial category Δ is replaced by a certain `fat' delta of `coloured ordinals', where the degeneracy maps are only up to homotopy. The first part of this exposition is aimed at a broad mathematical readership and contains also a brief introduction to simplicial viewpoints on higher categories in general. It is explained how the definition of fair n-category is almost forced upon us by three standard ideas.
The second part states some basic results about fair categories, and give examples. The category of fair 2-categories is shown to be equivalent to the category of bicatgeories with strict composition law. Fair 3-categories correspond to tricategories with strict composision laws. The main motivation for the theory is Simpson's weak-unit conjecture according to which n-groupoids with strict composition laws and weak units should model all homotopy n-types. A proof of this conjecture in dimension 3 is announced, obtained in joint work with A. Joyal. Technical details and a fuller treatment of the applications will appear elsewhere.
Abstract: We explore an alternative definition of unit in a monoidal category originally due to Saavedra: a Saavedra unit is a cancellative idempotent (in a 1-categorical sense). This notion is more economical than the usual notion in terms of left-right constraints, and is motivated by higher category theory. To start, we describe the semi-monoidal category of all possible unit structures on a given semi-monoidal category and observe that it is contractible (if nonempty). Then we prove that the two notions of units are equivalent in a strong functorial sense. Next, it is shown that the unit compatibility condition for a (strong) monoidal functor is precisely the condition for the functor to lift to the categories of units, and it is explained how the notion of Saavedra unit naturally leads to the equivalent non-algebraic notion of fair monoidal category, where the contractible multitude of units is considered as a whole instead of choosing one unit. To finish, the lax version of the unit comparison is considered. The paper is self-contained. All arguments are elementary, some of them of a certain beauty.
Abstract: We define weak units in a semi-monoidal 2-category C as cancellable pseudo-idempotents: they are pairs (I,α) where I is an object such that tensoring with I from either side constitutes a biequivalence of C, and α: I ⊗ I → I is an equivalence in C. We show that this notion of weak unit has coherence built in: Theorem A: α has a canonical associator 2-cell, which automatically satisfies the pentagon equation. Theorem B: every morphism of weak units is automatically compatible with those associators. Theorem C: the 2-category of weak units is contractible if non-empty. Finally we show (Theorem E) that the notion of weak unit is equivalent to the notion obtained from the definition of tricategory: α alone induces the whole family of left and right maps (indexed by the objects), as well as the whole family of Kelly 2-cells (one for each pair of objects), satisfying the relevant coherence axioms.
Abstract: We show that every braided monoidal category arises as End(I) for a weak unit I in an otherwise completely strict monoidal 2-category. This implies a version of Simpson's weak-unit conjecture in dimension 3, namely that one-object 3-groupoids that are strict in all respects, except that the object has only weak identity arrows, can model all connected, simply connected homotopy 3-types. The proof has a clear intuitive content and relies on a geometrical argument with string diagrams and configuration spaces.
Abstract: A concrete computation — twelve slidings with sixteen tiles — reveals that certain commutativity phenomena occur in every double semigroup. This can be seen as a sort of Eckmann-Hilton argument, but it does not use units. The result implies in particular that all cancellative double semigroups and all inverse double semigroups are commutative. Stepping up one dimension, the result is used to prove that all strictly associative two-fold monoidal categories (with weak units) are degenerate symmetric. In particular, strictly associative one-object, one-arrow 3-groupoids (with weak units) cannot realise all simply-connected homotopy 3-types.