The H2 Wiki


Scrap all your type classes but one

– or, “The mother of all type classes”

In “Scrap your type classes” Gabriel Gonzalez explains how we can replace type classes with dictionary passing. In this article I describe a sort of “halfway house” to scrapping all our type classes. Suppose we were only allowed one type class. Which would we choose? I’ll explain how we can get (almost) all of the benefits of all type classes with only a single type class, the “mother of all type classes” (in homage to Dan Piponi).

We need some uncontroversial language extensions.

{-# LANGUAGE DataKinds #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleContexts #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleInstances #-}
{-# LANGUAGE LambdaCase #-}
{-# LANGUAGE MultiParamTypeClasses #-}
{-# LANGUAGE PolyKinds #-}
{-# LANGUAGE Rank2Types #-}
{-# LANGUAGE ScopedTypeVariables #-}

and then we can present the “mother of all type classes”, called Class.

class Class (f :: k -> *) (a :: k) where
  classD :: f a

How does this allow us to replace all type classes? Where we previously had

instance MyClass a where ...

we will replace it with

instance Class MyClassD a where ...

where MyClassD is the type class dictionary that Gabriel explained to us. Let’s implement Show using Class. Firstly we define the dictionary.

newtype ShowD a = ShowD { showD :: a -> String }

and our instance definition fills in the missing operations, for example for Int and [Char].

instance Class ShowD Int where
  classD = ShowD { showD = show }

instance Class ShowD [Char] where
  classD = ShowD { showD = show }

(These definitions look circular because they use show. Although I’m supposed to be showing your how to implement show using Class these definitions are not circular. I’m only using the prexisting show out of laziness. In a “real” implementation a library author would fill in the actual body of show.)

Then we can define a type class polymorphic show function

showC :: Class ShowD a => a -> String
showC = showD classD

and it works just like we would expect

> showC (1 :: Int)
> showC "Hello"

Our familiar Show takes a parameter of kind *. Can we do higher kinded type parameters? Yes, because I carefully defined Class to be kind polymorphic. Note that in its definition a :: k. How about Functor then? Again, convert the Functor operations to a dictionary, fill in the implementation in the instances, and define a type class polymorphic fmapC.

newtype FunctorD f =
  FunctorD { fmapD :: forall a b. (a -> b) -> f a -> f b }

instance Class FunctorD Maybe where
  classD = FunctorD { fmapD = \f x -> case x of
                         Nothing -> Nothing
                         Just x  -> Just (f x)

instance Class FunctorD [] where
  classD = FunctorD { fmapD = \f x -> case x of
                         []      -> []
                         (x:xs)  -> f x : fmapD classD f xs

fmapC :: Class FunctorD f => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
fmapC = fmapD classD

It works as we expect

-- > fmapC (*10) (Just 1)
-- Just 10
-- > fmapC (*10) [1..4]
-- [10,20,30,40]

Show and Functor are single parameter type classes. Can we do multiparameter type classes? Yes, by using a type level tuple as the type parameter. For example, if I want to convert the multiparameter type class

class Set s e where
    insert   :: s -> e -> s
    contains :: s -> e -> Bool

to the “mother of all type classes” setup then I can define a dictionary with a type level tuple parameter by using a GADT.

data SetD a where
  SetD   :: (s -> e -> s)
         -> (s -> e -> Bool)
         -> SetD '(s, e)

Then everything proceeds as for Show and Functor, modulo some ceremony regarding unwrapping the GADT.

instance Class SetD '([Int], Int) where
  classD = SetD (\s e -> e:s) (\s e -> e `elem` s)

insertC :: forall s e. Class SetD '(s, e) => s -> e -> s
insertC = case classD' of SetD insert _ -> insert
  where classD' = classD :: SetD '(s, e)

containsC :: forall s e. Class SetD '(s, e) => s -> e -> Bool
containsC = case classD' of SetD _ contains -> contains
  where classD' = classD :: SetD '(s, e)
-- > insertC [2 :: Int,3,4] (10 :: Int)
-- [10,2,3,4]

We have to give type annotations when we use insertC but that’s due to Num being type class polymorphic and there being no functional dependency between s and e. That raises a question. Can we encode functional dependencies in the “mother of all typeclasses” Class formulation? No, I don’t see how. I also do not see how we can have associated types or data.

Other approaches

I haven’t found any other work that presents quite the same formulation as Class as presented above. I would be grateful to receive any links to such work. However, a similar scheme was proposed by John Hughes in Restricted Data Types in Haskell and borrowed by Ralf Lammel and Simon Peyton Jones in Scrap your boilerplate with class: extensible generic functions. Hughes introduced the class

class Sat t where
    dict :: t

Is the Sat approach equivalent to the Class approach? Let’s consider a concrete example. Is

instance Sat (FunctorD Maybe)

equivalent to

instance Class FunctorD Maybe

No, because Class FunctorD is genuinely something of kind (* -> *) -> Constraint just like Functor is. If I replaced the Prelude definition of Functor with

type Functor = Class FunctorD

then I would expect all of Haskell to still work the same. There’s no way of replacing Functor with Sat (FunctorD Maybe) because the latter has an insufficiently general type. Still, perhaps a parallel universe Haskell ecosystem could use the latter quite happily. What could go wrong? I can’t think of any obvious examples but advanced Constraint tricks might not be possible.

Oleg Kiselyov published a similar idea in 2007. I present a slight paraphrasing of Oleg’s most refined version. It looks quite similar to the above.

class C l t | l -> t where
    ac :: l -> t

data NUM a = NUM { nm_add :: a -> a -> a,
                   nm_mul :: a -> a -> a,
                   nm_fromInteger :: Integer -> a,
                   nm_show :: a -> String

data CLS a

instance C (CLS (NUM Int)) (NUM Int) where
    ac _ = NUM (+) (*) fromInteger show

Let’s try and refine it further. Firstly we notice that we’re always going to define instances of the form

instance C (CLS (f a)) (f a) where

so we may as well drop the second type parameter and use

class C t where
    ac :: CLS t -> t

instance C (f a) where

Then we notice that we don’t need the first, phantom, argument to ac any more. Oleg only introduced it to disambiguate instances. With the record-based approach the type constructor of the record is sufficient to disambiguate instances, so we can get away with merely

class C t where
    ac :: t

instance C (f a) where

which is equivalent to Sat above.


You can “scrap all your type classes but one” and use the “mother of all typeclasses instead”. I’m not suggesting you actually do this but I do think it’s very interesting. It remains to be seen how to fit functional dependencies and associated types and data into this scheme.


Thanks to rpglover64 and vaibhavsagar for pointing out typos.