Set theory is the branch of mathematical logic that studies sets, which can be informally described as collections of objects. Although objects of any kind can be collected into a set, set theory, as a branch of mathematics, is mostly concerned with those that are relevant to mathematics as a whole.
The modern study of set theory was initiated by the German mathematicians Richard Dedekind and Georg Cantor in the 1870s. In particular, Georg Cantor is commonly considered the founder of set theory. The nonformalized systems investigated during this early stage go under the name of naive set theory. After the discovery of paradoxes within naive set theory (such as Russell's paradox, Cantor's paradox and the BuraliForti paradox) various were proposed in the early twentieth century, of which Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (with or without the axiom of choice) is still the bestknown and most studied.
Set theory is commonly employed as a foundational system for the whole of mathematics, particularly in the form of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice. Besides its foundational role, set theory also provides the framework to develop a mathematical theory of infinity, and has various applications in computer science (such as in the theory of relational algebra), philosophy and formal semantics. Its foundational appeal, together with its paradoxes, its implications for the concept of infinity and its multiple applications, have made set theory an area of major interest for and philosophers of mathematics. Contemporary research into set theory covers a vast array of topics, ranging from the structure of the real number line to the study of the consistency of .
Since the 5th century BC, beginning with Greek mathematician Zeno of Elea in the West and early Indian mathematicians in the East, mathematicians had struggled with the concept of infinity. Especially notable is the work of Bernard Bolzano in the first half of the 19th century. Modern understanding of infinity began in 1870–1874, and was motivated by Cantor's work in real analysis.. An 1872 meeting between Cantor and Richard Dedekind influenced Cantor's thinking, and culminated in Cantor's 1874 paper.
Cantor's work initially polarized the mathematicians of his day. While Karl Weierstrass and Dedekind supported Cantor, Leopold Kronecker, now seen as a founder of mathematical constructivism, did not. Cantorian set theory eventually became widespread, due to the utility of Cantorian concepts, such as onetoone correspondence among sets, his proof that there are more than integers, and the "infinity of infinities" ("Cantor's paradise") resulting from the power set operation. This utility of set theory led to the article "Mengenlehre", contributed in 1898 by Arthur Schoenflies to Klein's encyclopedia.
The next wave of excitement in set theory came around 1900, when it was discovered that some interpretations of Cantorian set theory gave rise to several contradictions, called Antinomy or Logical paradox. Bertrand Russell and Ernst Zermelo independently found the simplest and best known paradox, now called Russell's paradox: consider "the set of all sets that are not members of themselves", which leads to a contradiction since it must be a member of itself and not a member of itself. In 1899, Cantor had himself posed the question "What is the cardinal number of the set of all sets?", and obtained a related paradox. Russell used his paradox as a theme in his 1903 review of continental mathematics in his The Principles of Mathematics. Rather than the term set, Russell used the term class, which has subsequently been used more technically.
In 1906, the term set appeared in the book Theory of Sets of Points by husband and wife William Henry Young and Grace Chisholm Young, published by Cambridge University Press.
The momentum of set theory was such that debate on the paradoxes did not lead to its abandonment. The work of Zermelo in 1908 and the work of Abraham Fraenkel and Thoralf Skolem in 1922 resulted in the set of axioms ZFC, which became the most commonly used set of axioms for set theory. The work of real analysis, such as that of Henri Lebesgue, demonstrated the great mathematical utility of set theory, which has since become woven into the fabric of modern mathematics. Set theory is commonly used as a foundational system, although in some areas—such as algebraic geometry and algebraic topology—category theory is thought to be a preferred foundation.
A derived binary relation between two sets is the subset relation, also called set inclusion. If all the members of set are also members of set , then is a subset of , denoted . For example, is a subset of , and so is but is not. As implied by this definition, a set is a subset of itself. For cases where this possibility is unsuitable or would make sense to be rejected, the term proper subset is defined. is called a proper subset of if and only if is a subset of , but is not equal to . Also, 1, 2, and 3 are members (elements) of the set , but are not subsets of it; and in turn, the subsets, such as , are not members of the set .
Just as arithmetic features on , set theory features binary operations on sets. The following is a partial list of them:
Some basic sets of central importance are the set of , the set of and the empty set—the unique set containing no elements. The empty set is also occasionally called the null set, though this name is ambiguous and can lead to several interpretations.
The most widely studied systems of axiomatic set theory imply that all sets form a cumulative hierarchy. Such systems come in two flavors, those whose ontology consists of:
The New Foundations systems of NFU (allowing ) and NF (lacking them) are not based on a cumulative hierarchy. NF and NFU include a "set of everything", relative to which every set has a complement. In these systems urelements matter, because NF, but not NFU, produces sets for which the axiom of choice does not hold. Despite NF's ontology not reflecting the traditional cumulative hierarchy and violating wellfoundedness, Thomas Forster has argued that it does reflect an iterative conception of set.
Systems of constructive set theory, such as CST, CZF, and IZF, embed their set axioms in intuitionistic instead of classical logic. Yet other systems accept classical logic but feature a nonstandard membership relation. These include Rough set and fuzzy set theory, in which the value of an atomic formula embodying the membership relation is not simply True or False. The Booleanvalued models of ZFC are a related subject.
An enrichment of ZFC called internal set theory was proposed by Edward Nelson in 1977.
Set theory is also a promising foundational system for much of mathematics. Since the publication of the first volume of Principia Mathematica, it has been claimed that most (or even all) mathematical theorems can be derived using an aptly designed set of axioms for set theory, augmented with many definitions, using first or secondorder logic. For example, properties of the natural number and can be derived within set theory, as each number system can be identified with a set of equivalence classes under a suitable equivalence relation whose field is some infinite set.
Set theory as a foundation for mathematical analysis, topology, abstract algebra, and discrete mathematics is likewise uncontroversial; mathematicians accept (in principle) that theorems in these areas can be derived from the relevant definitions and the axioms of set theory. However, it remains that few full derivations of complex mathematical theorems from set theory have been formally verified, since such formal derivations are often much longer than the natural language proofs mathematicians commonly present. One verification project, Metamath, includes humanwritten, computerverified derivations of more than 12,000 theorems starting from ZFC set theory, firstorder logic and propositional logic.
The field of effective descriptive set theory is between set theory and recursion theory. It includes the study of lightface pointclasses, and is closely related to hyperarithmetical theory. In many cases, results of classical descriptive set theory have effective versions; in some cases, new results are obtained by proving the effective version first and then extending ("relativizing") it to make it more broadly applicable.
A recent area of research concerns Borel equivalence relations and more complicated definable equivalence relations. This has important applications to the study of invariants in many fields of mathematics.
The study of inner models is common in the study of determinacy and , especially when considering axioms such as the axiom of determinacy that contradict the axiom of choice. Even if a fixed model of set theory satisfies the axiom of choice, it is possible for an inner model to fail to satisfy the axiom of choice. For example, the existence of sufficiently large cardinals implies that there is an inner model satisfying the axiom of determinacy (and thus not satisfying the axiom of choice).
A different objection put forth by Henri Poincaré is that defining sets using the axiom schemas of specification and replacement, as well as the axiom of power set, introduces impredicativity, a type of circularity, into the definitions of mathematical objects. The scope of predicatively founded mathematics, while less than that of the commonly accepted Zermelo–Fraenkel theory, is much greater than that of constructive mathematics, to the point that Solomon Feferman has said that "all of scientifically applicable analysis can be developed using".
Ludwig Wittgenstein condemned set theory philosophically for its connotations of mathematical platonism. He wrote that "set theory is wrong", since it builds on the "nonsense" of fictitious symbolism, has "pernicious idioms", and that it is nonsensical to talk about "all numbers". Wittgenstein identified mathematics with algorithmic human deduction; the need for a secure foundation for mathematics seemed, to him, nonsensical. Moreover, since human effort is necessarily finite, Wittgenstein's philosophy required an ontological commitment to radical constructivism and finitism. Metamathematical statements — which, for Wittgenstein, included any statement quantifying over infinite domains, and thus almost all modern set theory — are not mathematics. Few modern philosophers have adopted Wittgenstein's views after a spectacular blunder in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics: Wittgenstein attempted to refute Gödel's incompleteness theorems after having only read the abstract. As reviewers Georg Kreisel, Paul Bernays, Michael Dummett, and Goodstein all pointed out, many of his critiques did not apply to the paper in full. Only recently have philosophers such as Crispin Wright begun to rehabilitate Wittgenstein's arguments.
category theory have proposed topos theory as an alternative to traditional axiomatic set theory. Topos theory can interpret various alternatives to that theory, such as constructivism, finite set theory, and Turing Machine set theory. Topoi also give a natural setting for forcing and discussions of the independence of choice from ZF, as well as providing the framework for pointless topology and .
An active area of research is the univalent foundations and related to it homotopy type theory. Within homotopy type theory, a set may be regarded as a homotopy 0type, with universal properties of sets arising from the inductive and recursive properties of higher inductive types. Principles such as the axiom of choice and the law of the excluded middle can be formulated in a manner corresponding to the classical formulation in set theory or perhaps in a spectrum of distinct ways unique to type theory. Some of these principles may be proven to be a consequence of other principles. The variety of formulations of these axiomatic principles allows for a detailed analysis of the formulations required in order to derive various mathematical results. Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics. The Univalent Foundations Program. Institute for Advanced Study.
In the US in the 1960s, the New Math experiment aimed to teach basic set theory, among other abstract concepts, to primary school students, but was met with much criticism. The math syllabus in European schools followed this trend, and currently includes the subject at different levels in all grades. are widely employed to explain basic settheoretic relationships to primary school students (even though John Venn originally devised them as part of a procedure to assess the validity of in term logic).
Set theory is used to introduce students to logical operators (NOT, AND, OR), and semantic or rule description (technically intensional definition
) of sets (e.g. "months starting with the letter A"), which may be useful when learning computer programming, since boolean logic is used in various programming languages. Likewise, sets and other collectionlike objects, such as and lists, are common in computer science and programming.In addition to that, sets are commonly referred to in mathematical teaching when talking about different types of numbers (the sets $\backslash mathbb\{N\}$ of natural numbers, $\backslash mathbb\{Z\}$ of , $\backslash mathbb\{R\}$ of , etc.), and when defining a mathematical function as a relation from one set (the domain) to another set (the range).

