My answer on Quora: How does category theory relate to other branches of mathematics?

An excellent question. Category theory is important on its own, and has important applications in a number of other mathematical theories; however, the crucial and the most fundamental impact of category theory is invisible and under-reported, it is of cultural nature. It can be compared with the influence of set theory: 99% of mathematicians use only a modicum of naive set theory, ignoring deeply penetrating and frequently very hard results of set theory as the live research discipline which continues to develop and flourish.

There is a telling example: the theory of games of chance was created in the 17th century and gave birth to probability theory; the latter was already quite developed by the time when, in the 20th century, the concept of a deterministic game had finally crystallized – in a paper, of all people, by Zermelo, who proved that chess was a deterministic game: for one of the players, there is a strategy, that is, a function from the set of permissible position to the set of moves, which achieves at least a draw. His paper was published in 1913 (see Zermelo’s theorem (game theory) – Wikipedia). Why did this happen so late? The word “set” in the definition of a strategy came to use only in the second half of the 19th century.

The same is happening with category theory: the vast majority of mathematicians use its ideas and terminology in a very rudimentary and naive form, frequently even without realisation that they are doing so. In the work that I am doing, it had happened to be very important to remember that an algebraic group was a functor from the category of unital commutative rings to the category of groups. Some my colleagues who work in the same theory continue to insist that a group is a fixed set with some operations on it. When my co-author and I recently solved a certain problem which was open since 1999, we were able to do that only because for us a group in question was a functor – not much deeper than that. Why it was not solved by someone else earlier? Because for them a group was just a set.

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