Definition:Empty Set
Contents
Definition
The empty set is a set which has no elements.
It is usually denoted by some variant of a zero with a line through it, for example $\varnothing$ or $\empty$, and can always be represented as $\left\{{}\right\}$.
Axiomatic Set Theory
The concept of the empty set is axiomatised in the Axiom of the Empty Set in Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory:
There exists a set that has no elements:
- $\exists x: \forall y: \left({\neg \left({y \in x}\right)}\right)$
Also known as
The empty set is sometimes called the null set, but this name is discouraged because there is another concept for null set which ought not to be confused with this.
Some sources call the empty set the vacuous set.
Others call it the void set.
Notes on Symbology
The symbols $\varnothing$ and $\empty$ are properly considered as stylings of $0$ (zero), and not variants of the Greek "Phi": $\Phi, \phi, \varphi$.
Some sources maintain that it is a variant on the Norwegian / Danish / Faeroese letter Ø.
Some sources use $\Box$ as the symbol for the empty set, but this is rare.
Other sources use $0$, but this is not recommended for readily apparent reasons.
The preferred symbol on $\mathsf{Pr} \infty \mathsf{fWiki}$ is $\varnothing$ for its completely unambiguous interpretation and aesthetically pleasing, clean presentation.
Existence of Empty Set
Some authors have problems with the existence (or not) of the empty set:
- 1951: Nathan Jacobson: Lectures in Abstract Algebra: I. Basic Concepts: Introduction $\S 1$: Operations on Sets:
- One may regard [the vacuous set] as a zero element that is adjoined to the collection of "real" subsets.
- 1965: J.A. Green: Sets and Groups: $\S 1.3$:
- If $A, B$ are disjoint, then $A \cap B$ is not really defined, because it has no elements. For this reason we introduce a conventional empty set, denoted $\varnothing$, to be thought of as a 'set with no elements'. Of course this is a set only by courtesy, but it is convenient to allow $\varnothing$ the status of a set.
- 1968: Ian D. Macdonald: The Theory of Groups: Appendix:
- The best attitude towards the empty set $\varnothing$ is, perhaps, to regard it as an interesting curiosity, a convenient fiction. To say that $x \in \varnothing$ simply means that $x$ does not exist. Note that it is conveniently agreed that $\varnothing$ is a subset of every set, for elements of $\varnothing$ are supposed to possess every property.
- 2000: James R. Munkres: Topology (2nd ed.): $1$: Set Theory and Logic: $\S 1$: Fundamental Concepts
- Now some students are bothered with the notion of an "empty set". "How", they say, "can you have a set with nothing in it?" ... The empty set is only a convention, and mathematics could very well get along without it. But it is a very convenient convention, for it saves us a good deal of awkwardness in stating theorems and proving them.
Such a philosophical position is considered by many mathematicians to be a timid attitude harking back to the mediaeval distrust of zero.
Other sources allow the definition of the empty set, but because of the way natural numbers are defined, determine that it is neither finite nor infinite.
Also see
- Empty Set is Unique for a proof that it is justifiable to refer to $\varnothing$ as the empty set.
- Definition:Non-Empty Set, a common phrasing used to denote any set but the empty set.
- Results about the empty set can be found here.
Historical Note
The concept of the empty set was stated by Leibniz in his initial conception of symbolic logic.
The use of $\varnothing$ has relevance to the early days of the computing industry, when $\empty$ was frequently used to mean "zero", in order to distinguish it from $\mathrm O$ (the letter O).
In the same context, the letter O was sometimes seen rendered as $\odot$, so as to ensure its being differentiated from "zero".
The latter has fallen out of use, but it is still common for mathematicians, when writing their mathematics by hand, to strike through their zeroes out of habit.
Linguistic Note
The word vacuous literally means empty.
It derives from the Latin word vacuum, meaning empty space.
Sources
- 1951: Nathan Jacobson: Lectures in Abstract Algebra: I. Basic Concepts ... (previous) ... (next): Introduction $\S 1$: Operations on Sets
- 1955: John L. Kelley: General Topology ... (previous) ... (next): Chapter $0$: Subsets and Complements; Union and Intersection
- 1960: Paul R. Halmos: Naive Set Theory ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 3$: Unordered Pairs
- 1962: Bert Mendelson: Introduction to Topology ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.2$: Sets and Subsets
- 1964: W.E. Deskins: Abstract Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.1$
- 1964: Steven A. Gaal: Point Set Topology ... (previous) ... (next): Introduction to Set Theory: $1$. Elementary Operations on Sets
- 1964: William K. Smith: Limits and Continuity ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 2.1$: Sets
- 1964: Murray R. Spiegel: Theory and Problems of Complex Variables ... (previous) ... (next): $1$: Point Sets: $14.$
- 1965: J.A. Green: Sets and Groups ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.3$
- 1965: Seth Warner: Modern Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1$
- 1966: Richard A. Dean: Elements of Abstract Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 0.2$
- 1967: John D. Dixon: Problems in Group Theory ... (next): Introduction: Notation
- 1967: George McCarty: Topology: An Introduction with Application to Topological Groups ... (previous) ... (next): Introduction: Special Symbols
- 1968: A.N. Kolmogorov and S.V. Fomin: Introductory Real Analysis ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.1$: Basic definitions
- 1968: Ian D. Macdonald: The Theory of Groups ... (previous) ... (next): Appendix: Elementary set and number theory
- 1970: Avner Friedman: Foundations of Modern Analysis ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.1$: Rings and Algebras
- 1971: Allan Clark: Elements of Abstract Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 3$
- 1971: Robert H. Kasriel: Undergraduate Topology ... (previous) ... (next): $\S1.1$: Sets and Membership
- 1971: Gaisi Takeuti and Wilson M. Zaring: Introduction to Axiomatic Set Theory: $\S 5.16$
- 1972: A.G. Howson: A Handbook of Terms used in Algebra and Analysis ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 2$: Sets and functions: Sets
- 1975: T.S. Blyth: Set Theory and Abstract Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1$
- 1975: W.A. Sutherland: Introduction to Metric and Topological Spaces ... (previous) ... (next): Notation and Terminology
- 1977: K.G. Binmore: Mathematical Analysis: A Straightforward Approach ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.1$: Set Notation
- 1977: Gary Chartrand: Introductory Graph Theory ... (previous) ... (next): Appendix $\text{A}.1$: Sets and Subsets
- 1978: John S. Rose: A Course on Group Theory ... (previous) ... (next): $0$: Some Conventions and some Basic Facts
- 1978: Thomas A. Whitelaw: An Introduction to Abstract Algebra ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 6$
- 1982: P.M. Cohn: Algebra Volume 1 (2nd ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.2$: Sets
- 1993: Keith Devlin: The Joy of Sets: Fundamentals of Contemporary Set Theory (2nd ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.2$: Operations on Sets
- 1996: H. Jerome Keisler and Joel Robbin: Mathematical Logic and Computability ... (previous) ... (next): Appendix $\text{A}.1$: Sets
- 1999: András Hajnal and Peter Hamburger: Set Theory ... (previous) ... (next): $1$. Notation, Conventions: $4$
- 2000: James R. Munkres: Topology (2nd ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): $1$: Set Theory and Logic: $\S 1$: Fundamental Concepts
- 2008: Paul Halmos and Steven Givant: Introduction to Boolean Algebras ... (previous) ... (next): Appendix $\text{A}$: Set Theory: Unordered Pairs and their Relatives
- 2008: David Joyner: Adventures in Group Theory (2nd ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.2$: Elements, my dear Watson: Example $1.2.1$
- 2010: Raymond M. Smullyan and Melvin Fitting: Set Theory and the Continuum Problem (revised ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): $\S 1.1$: What is infinity?
- 2012: M. Ben-Ari: Mathematical Logic for Computer Science (3rd ed.) ... (previous) ... (next): Appendix $\text{A}.1$: Definition $\text{A}.1$