# Polymorphic recursion combinator in Haskell

– or “polymorphic fixed point combinator”

This article explains recursion combinators and polymorphic recursion, and deduces a polymorphic recursion combinator.

## Recursion

Haskell allows us to write recursive functions, that is functions which refer to themselves in their definitions. Here is a recursively defined (and somewhat inefficient) list length function.

-- Type can be inferred
lengthList :: [a] -> Int
lengthList xs = case xs of
[]       -> 0
(_:rest) -> 1 + lengthList rest
> lengthList [1,2,3]
3

Another approach is to factor out the recursive call and make the recursion happen elsewhere. Notice how the parameter recurse replaces the recursive call.

-- Type can be inferred
lengthListF :: ([a] -> Int) -> [a] -> Int
lengthListF recurse xs = case xs of
[]       -> 0
(_:rest) -> 1 + recurse rest

-- Type can be inferred
lengthList2 :: [a] -> Int
lengthList2 = lengthListF lengthList2
-- > lengthList2 [1,2,3]
-- 3

We can abstract this pattern even further by writing a “recursion combinator” or “fixed point combinator”.

-- Type can be inferred
fix :: (a -> a) -> a
fix f = f (fix f)

The recursion combinator allows us to write

-- Type can be inferred
lengthList3 :: [a] -> Int
lengthList3 = fix lengthListF
-- > lengthList3 [1,2,3]
-- 3

As an aside, the actual definition of fix in the Haskell standard library is a more efficient version, but that’s not important in this article.

-- More efficient fix
fix :: (a -> a) -> a
fix f = let x = f x in x

## Polymorphic recursion

As well as recursive data structures and functions like lists and length, Haskell also allows us to write polymorphically recursive data structures and functions.

data Nested a = Nil | a :< Nested [a]

infixr 5 :<

nested = 1 :< [2, 3] :< [[3, 4], ] :< Nil

Nested is recursively defined in terms of itself but the recursive parameter is [a] not the original a, so this recursive data type definition is called “polymorphic”. We can write a recursive function to calculate the length of Nesteds.

-- Type cannot be inferred
lengthNested :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested ns = case ns of
Nil      -> 0
_ :< nns -> 1 + lengthNested nns
-- > lengthNested nested
-- 3

This is a polymorphically recursive function because the type of the argument ns, Nested a, differs from the type of the argument to the recursive call nns, which is Nested [a]. Nonetheless we can play the same trick as above, replacing the recursive call with a parameter.

-- Type can be inferred
lengthNestedF :: (Nested [a] -> Int) -> Nested a -> Int
lengthNestedF recurse ns = case ns of
Nil      -> 0
_ :< nns -> 1 + recurse nns

-- Type cannot be inferred
lengthNested2 :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested2 = lengthNestedF lengthNested2
-- > lengthNested3 nested
-- 3

But trying to define this in terms of fix does not work.

lengthNested2 :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested2 = fix lengthNestedF

-- Couldn't match type a' with [a]'

The argument to lengthNestedF has type Nested [a] -> Int and the return value has type Nested a -> Int. fix will not work here because the argument and return type must be the same. We can try to be sneaky by providing a more general type.

-- Requires RankNTypes

-- Type cannot be inferred
lengthNestedF2 :: (forall a. Nested a -> Int) -> Nested a -> Int
lengthNestedF2 recurse ns = case ns of
Nil      -> 0
_ :< nns -> 1 + recurse nns

This gets us closer but not close enough.

lengthNested2 :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested2 = fix lengthNestedF

-- Couldn't match type forall a1. Nested a1 -> Int'
-- with Nested a -> a'

What hope is there of representing polymorphic recursion with a combinator? The answer is that we need to generalise the type of fix.

-- Requires ScopedTypeVariables

-- Type signature must be provided.
fixPolymorphic :: forall f. ((forall a. f a) -> (forall a. f a))
-> forall a. f a
fixPolymorphic f = let x :: f b
x = f x
in x

To use this with lengthNestedF2 we also need an ad hoc data type that does nothing except massage the type Nested a -> Int into a different form.

newtype NestedFunction a =
NestedFunction { unNestedFunction :: Nested a -> Int }

-- Type signature is not required
lengthNested2 :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested2 =
unNestedFunction (fixPolymorphic (\x -> NestedFunction
(lengthNestedF2
(unNestedFunction x))))
-- > lengthNested2 nested
-- 3

Because NestedFunction is a newtype, NestedFunction and unNestedFunction don’t actually do anything. We only need NestedFunction to massage type parameters around. Morally, the definition of lengthNested2 is just

lengthNested2 :: Nested a -> Int
lengthNested2 = fixPolymorphic lengthNestedF2

And there we have it, a polymorphic recursion combinator.

## Polymorphic recursion is just recursion

It’s a bit disappointing that we have two different combinators, though. Can we combine them? Yes! With another ad hoc data type

newtype Forall f = Forall { unForall :: forall a. f a }

we can write

fixPolymorphic2 :: forall f. ((forall a. f a) -> (forall a. f a))
-> forall a. f a
fixPolymorphic2 f = unForall (fix (\x -> Forall (f (unForall x))))

As above, Forall and unForall really don’t do anything, and morally the definition of the polymorphic recursion combinator is

fixPolymorphic2 :: forall f. ((forall a. f a) -> (forall a. f a))
-> forall a. f a
fixPolymorphic2 f = fix f

That is, recursion and polymorphic recursion in Haskell are exactly the same thing!

(Thanks to winterkoninkje on Reddit for explaining a type system issue.)