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A special type of subobject of an algebraic structure. The concept of an ideal first arose in the theory of rings. The name ideal derives from the concept of an ideal number.

For an algebra, a ring or a semi-group , an ideal is a subalgebra, subring or sub-semi-group closed under multiplication by elements of . Here an ideal is said to be a left (or right) ideal if it is closed under multiplication on the left (or right) by elements of , that is, if


An ideal that is simultaneously a left ideal and a right ideal (that is, one that is preserved under multiplication by elements of ) is said to be two-sided. These three concepts coincide in the commutative case. Every assertion about left ideals has a corresponding dual assertion about right ideals (subsequent statements will refer only to the "left case" ).

Two-sided ideals in rings and algebras play exactly the same role as do normal subgroups (cf. Normal subgroup) in groups. For every homomorphism , the kernel (that is, the set of elements mapped to 0 by ) is an ideal, and conversely every ideal is the kernel of some homomorphism. Moreover, an ideal determines a unique congruence (in algebra) on of which it is the zero class, and thus determines the image of the homomorphism of which it is the kernel uniquely (up to an isomorphism): is isomorphic to the quotient ring or quotient algebra , denoted also by . Ideals of multi-operator groups have similar properties in relation to homomorphisms. In a multi-operator -group an ideal is defined to be a normal subgroup of its additive group satisfying the following property: For every -ary operator , arbitrary elements and , the relation

holds for . (This concept reduces to that of a two-sided ideal for rings and algebras.)

On the other hand, the two-sided ideals of a semi-group do not give a description of all homomorphic images of the semi-group. If a homomorphism of a semi-group onto a semi-group is given, then only in the case where is a semi-group with zero it is possible to associate with a two-sided ideal in a natural way, namely ; however, this association need not determine uniquely. Nevertheless, if is an ideal of , then among the quotient semi-groups of having the class of as an element there exists a maximal one, written (and called the ideal quotient). The elements of this semi-group are the elements of the set and the ideal itself, which is the zero in .

For an arbitrary subset one can define the ideal generated by as the intersection of all ideals that contain . The set is said to be a basis of the ideal . Different bases can generate one and the same ideal. An ideal generated by a single element is said to be a principal ideal.

The intersection, and for semi-groups also the union, of left (two-sided) ideals is again a left (two-sided) ideal. For rings and algebras, the set-theoretical union of ideals need not be an ideal. Let and be left or two-sided ideals in a ring (or algebra) . The sum of the ideals and is the ideal ; it is the smallest ideal of containing and . The set of all (left or two-sided) ideals of a ring (or algebra) forms a lattice under the operations of intersection and taking sums. Many classes of rings and algebras are defined by conditions on their ideals or on the lattice of ideals (see Principal ideal ring; Artinian ring; Noetherian ring).

An ideal of the multiplicative semi-group of a ring may or may not be an ideal of the ring. A semi-group is a group if and only if has no (left or two-sided) ideal other than . Thus, the abundance of ideals in a semi-group characterizes the degree to which the semi-group differs from a group.

For a -algebra (an algebra over a field ), an ideal of the ring need not be an ideal of the algebra . For example, if is a -algebra with zero multiplication, the set of ideals of the ring is the set of subgroups of the additive group of , while the set of ideals of the algebra is the set of all subspaces of the vector -space . However, when is an algebra with identity, these concepts of an ideal coincide. Therefore many results have identical statements for rings and algebras.

A ring not having any two-sided ideal is said to be a simple ring. A ring without proper one-sided ideals is a skew-field. Left ideals of a ring may also be defined as submodules of the left -module . Some properties of rings remain unchanged when right ideals are substituted for left ideals. For example, the Jacobson radical defined in terms of left ideals is the same as the Jacobson radical defined in terms of right ideals. On the other hand, a left Noetherian ring can fail to be right Noetherian.

The study of ideals in commutative rings is an important part of commutative algebra. With every commutative ring with identity one can associate the topological space whose elements are the proper prime ideals of . There is a one-to-one correspondence between the set of all radicals of ideals of and the set of closed subspaces of .

The concept of an ideal of a field occurs in commutative algebra, more precisely, that of an ideal of a field relative to a ring. Here is a commutative ring with identity and without zero divisors, and is the field of fractions of . An ideal of the field is a non-zero subset that is a subgroup of the additive group of closed under multiplication by elements of (that is, whenever and ) and such that there exists an element such that . An ideal is said to be an integral ideal if it is contained in (and then it is an ordinary ideal of ); otherwise it is a fractional ideal.

An ideal of a lattice is a non-empty subset of a lattice such that: 1) if , then ; and 2) if , then . A dual ideal (or a filter) of a lattice is defined in the dual manner ( implies ; implies ). The ideals of a lattice also form a lattice under inclusion. A maximal element of the set of all proper ideals of a lattice is called a maximal ideal. If is a homomorphism of a lattice onto a partially ordered set with a zero, then the complete inverse image of the zero is an ideal. It is called the kernel ideal of . An ideal of a lattice is said to be a standard ideal if for arbitrary , , the inequality implies that , where and . Every standard ideal is a kernel ideal. A kernel ideal of a relatively complemented lattice (see Lattice with complements) is standard. An ideal is called a prime ideal if or whenever . Each of the following conditions is equivalent to primality for an ideal of a lattice : a) the complement is a filter; or b) is the complete inverse image of zero under some homomorphism of onto a two-element lattice. Every maximal ideal of a distributive lattice is prime.

The concept of an ideal in a partially ordered set is not in full agreement with the preceding definition. In fact, instead of 1), a stronger condition is required to hold: For every subset of the ideal, the supremum (join) of the set (if it exists) is also in .

An ideal object of a category with null morphisms is a subobject of such that for some morphism . This ideal can be identified with the set of all monomorphisms that are kernels of some morphism (see also Normal monomorphism). The concept of a co-ideal object of a category is defined in the dual way. The concept of an ideal for -groups is a special case of that of an ideal object in a category.

A left ideal of a category is a class of morphisms containing, with every morphism of it, all products with , if these are defined in . Right ideals of a category are defined in the dual way. A two-sided ideal is a class of morphisms that is both a left ideal and a right ideal.


[1] Z.I. Borevich, I.R. Shafarevich, "Number theory" , Acad. Press (1966) (Translated from Russian) (German translation: Birkhäuser, 1966)
[2] N. Bourbaki, "Elements of mathematics. Commutative algebra" , Addison-Wesley (1972) (Translated from French)
[3] B.L. van der Waerden, "Algebra" , 1–2 , Springer (1967–1971) (Translated from German)
[4] A.H. Clifford, G.B. Preston, "Algebraic theory of semi-groups" , 1–2 , Amer. Math. Soc. (1961–1967)
[5] A.G. Kurosh, "Lectures on general algebra" , Chelsea (1963) (Translated from Russian)
[6] E.S. Lyapin, "Semigroups" , Amer. Math. Soc. (1974) (Translated from Russian)
[7] L.A. Skornyakov, "Elements of lattice theory" , Hindushtan Publ. Comp. (1977) (Translated from Russian)
[8] M.Sh. Tsalenko, E.G. Shul'geifer, "Fundamentals of category theory" , Moscow (1974) (In Russian)


There is some disagreement about the correct definition of an ideal in a partially ordered set . Instead of the definition given above, some authors would allow to be an arbitrary lower set (if , then ); others require additionally that be directed (if and , then there exists a with and ). The latter definition has the advantage of agreeing with the usual one in the case when is a lattice (or a join semi-lattice).

For a Boolean algebra , a subset of is an ideal in the lattice-theoretic sense if and only if it is an ideal of the Boolean ring . It was this equivalence which led M.H. Stone [a1] to extend the use of the term "ideal" from rings to lattices. Since then, the study of ideals has played an important role in lattice theory, and particularly in the theory of distributive lattices.


[a1] M.H. Stone, "Topological representation of distributive lattices and Brouwerian logics" Časopis Pešt. Mat. Fys. , 67 (1937) pp. 1–25
[a2] P.T. Johnstone, "Stone spaces" , Cambridge Univ. Press (1982)
[a3] N. Jacobson, "Structure of rings" , Amer. Math. Soc. (1956)
[a4] N. Jacobson, "The theory of rings" , Amer. Math. Soc. (1943)
How to Cite This Entry:
Ideal. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This article was adapted from an original article by L.V. Kuz'minT.S. FofanovaM.Sh. Tsalenko (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article