Transfinite induction is an extension of mathematical induction that is applicable to well-founded classes such as an ordinal notation, an ordinal, the class \(\textrm{On}\) of ordinals, and the class \(V\) of sets. It can be used in proving the statements about ordinals such as comparisons of fast-growing functions, and in constructing maps on \(\textrm{On}\) or \(V\) such as elementary operators of ordinals and the rank of sets.


Let \(P(\alpha)\) be a predicate on an element \(\alpha\) of a well-founded class \((X,<)\). Suppose that for all \(\alpha \in X\), if \(P(\beta)\) holds for all \(\beta \in X\) satisfying \(\beta < \alpha\), then \(P(\alpha)\) also holds. Then transfinite induction tells us that \(P\) is true for all \(\alpha \in X\).

In the case \((X,<) = (\textrm{On},\in)\), although transfinite induction does not refer to whether \(\alpha\) is a successor ordinal or not, a proof is frequently devided in to the following three cases:

  • Zero case: prove that \(P(0)\) holds.
  • Successor case: prove that \(\forall \alpha \in \textrm{On} : P(\alpha) \rightarrow P(\alpha+1)\) (for any successor \(\alpha\), \(P(\alpha)\) implies \(P(\alpha+1)\)) holds.
  • Limit case: prove that \(\forall \lambda \in \textrm{On} \setminus \{0\} : (\forall \beta \in \lambda : \lambda \neq \beta+1) \rightarrow ((\forall \beta \in \lambda : P(\beta)) \rightarrow P(\lambda))\) (for any non-zero limit ordinal \(\lambda\), \(P(\beta)\) implies \(P(\lambda)\)) holds.

As axiom schema

In ZFC set theory, transfinite induction is a valid deduction. In other words, for any predicate \(P(\alpha)\) on an element \(\alpha\) of a well-founded class \((X,<)\), the closed formula "for all \(\alpha \in X\), if \(P(\beta)\) holds for all \(\beta \in X\) satisfying \(\beta < \alpha\), then \(P(\alpha)\) holds" is provable in \(\textrm{ZFC}\) set theory. This statement, which includes the quantification of the formula \(P\) and the class \((X,<)\), itself is not a theorem in \(\textrm{ZFC}\) set theory, but is a metatheorem, i.e. a theorem in the metatheory, on the provability of the transfinite induction schema.

In ZFC set theory, the axiom of regularity implies \(V = \textrm{WF}\), where \(\textrm{WF}\) denotes von Neumann universe, and hence the well-foundedness of \((V,\in)\). Therefore transfinite induction ensure the metatheorem that for any predicate \(P(x)\) on a set \(x\), the closed formula "for all set \(x\), if \(P(y)\) holds for all \(y \in x\), then \(P(x)\) holds" is provable in \(\textrm{ZFC}\) set theory. On the other hand, when we deal with a weaker set theory such as KP set theory, the metatheorem does not necessarily hold. Therefore the transfinite induction on \((V,\in)\) or its restriction to a specific class of predicates can be non-trivial axiom schema.

When we deal with an arithmetic such as Peano arithmetic, then the well-foundedness of the formalisation of a recursive well-orderring in the metatheory is not necessarily provable in the arithmetic. Therefore the transfinite induction on a recursive well-orderring does not necessarily hold for the arithmetic. Therefore the transfinite induction on a recursive well-orderring can be non-trivial axiom schema. Indeed, when the metatheory is a set theory, we can define the notion of proof-theoretic ordinal using the provability of axiom schema for (premitive) recursive well-orderrings whose ordinal type is bounded by a given ordinal. Note that the precise definition of proof-theoretic ordinal is quite complicated, and is not literally given as the supremum of ordinals \(\alpha\) in the metatheory such that the transfinite induction on the formalisation of a recursive well-orderring of ordinal type bounded by \(\alpha\) holds for the arithmetic.


There are many functions and hierarchies defined by transfinite induction:

See also

Basics: cardinal numbers · ordinal numbers · limit ordinals · fundamental sequence · normal form · ordinal notation · transfinite induction
Theories: Robinson arithmetic · Presburger arithmetic · Peano arithmetic · KP · second-order arithmetic · ZFC
Model Theoretic Concepts: structure · elementary embedding
Countable ordinals: \(\omega\) · \(\varepsilon_0\) · \(\zeta_0\) · \(\eta_0\) · \(\Gamma_0\) (Feferman–Schütte ordinal) · \(\varphi(1,0,0,0)\) (Ackermann ordinal) · \(\psi_0(\Omega^{\Omega^\omega})\) (small Veblen ordinal) · \(\psi_0(\Omega^{\Omega^\Omega})\) (large Veblen ordinal) · \(\psi_0(\varepsilon_{\Omega + 1}) = \psi_0(\Omega_2)\) (Bachmann-Howard ordinal) · \(\psi_0(\Omega_\omega)\) with respect to Buchholz's ψ · \(\psi_0(\varepsilon_{\Omega_\omega + 1})\) (Takeuti-Feferman-Buchholz ordinal) · \(\psi_0(\Omega_{\Omega_{\cdot_{\cdot_{\cdot}}}})\) (countable limit of Extended Buchholz's function)‎ · \(\omega_1^\mathfrak{Ch}\) · \(\omega_1^{\text{CK}}\) (Church-Kleene ordinal) · \(\omega_\alpha^\text{CK}\) (admissible ordinal) · recursively inaccessible ordinal · recursively Mahlo ordinal · reflecting ordinal · stable ordinal · \(\lambda,\zeta,\Sigma,\gamma\) (ordinals on infinite time Turing machine) · gap ordinal · List of countable ordinals
Ordinal hierarchies: Fast-growing hierarchy · Slow-growing hierarchy · Hardy hierarchy · Middle-growing hierarchy · N-growing hierarchy
Ordinal functions: enumeration · normal function · derivative · Veblen function · ordinal collapsing function · Bachmann's function · Madore's function · Feferman's theta function · Buchholz's function · Extended Buchholz's function · Jäger's function · Rathjen's psi function · Rathjen's Psi function · Stegert's Psi function
Uncountable cardinals: \(\omega_1\) · omega fixed point · inaccessible cardinal \(I\) · Mahlo cardinal \(M\) · weakly compact cardinal \(K\) · indescribable cardinal · rank-into-rank cardinal
Classes: \(V\) · \(L\) · \(\textrm{On}\) · \(\textrm{Lim}\) · \(\textrm{AP}\) · Class (set theory)

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