[Haskell-cafe] Alternatives to type classes.

Dan Doel dan.doel at gmail.com
Tue Dec 29 20:46:03 EST 2009

On Tuesday 29 December 2009 8:22:15 pm Jason Dusek wrote:
>   Consider the real numbers. They "are" a group. We have an
>   identity element `0', inverses and closure under the associative
>   operation `+'.
>     Group+ = (+, 0, -1 * _)
>   They are another group, too -- the group with `*':
>     Group* = (*, 1, 1 / _)
>   This seems like a real problem with the whole notion of
>   typeclasses -- we can't really say a set/type "is" its
>   extension with some new operations.
>   One road to go on this is to make every extension of the set
>   with new ops a different type; but that seems really horribly
>   inconvenient. I wonder what approaches have been tried here?

The solution to this used in the standard library tends to be to define a 
newtype wrapper to select the right group structure. But that isn't ideal. 
What this is really indicating is that we want a parameterized module or 
(dependent) record of some sort. For instance:

  data GroupStructure a = Group { (*) :: a -> a -> a
                                ; e   :: a
                                ; inv :: a -> a

which works fine in this case, because there are no associated types (and we 
can't encode equational laws in the type system anyway). But if there were, 
we'd probably want something more like ML modules (or dependent records).

And of course, that's essentially what type classes are. They're 
records/modules that are uniquely determined by the type(s) in question, so 
they can be filled in automatically. But that obviously doesn't work very well 
when there isn't a single correct instance for any type.

Sometimes there are many valid instances but one 'best' one, and I've wondered 
if something like:

  class Group a where
    structure :: GroupStructure a

might not be a decent way to go. One can then write things like:

  foo :: GroupStructure a -> ...
  foo gs = ...

  foo' :: Group a => ...
  foo' = foo structure

where foo is for people who want to use the non-standard instances, while foo' 
retains the ease of use. But that's quite a bit of boilerplate, so ideally I 
suppose this sort of duality would be recognized and supported by the 
language---there would be a default GroupStructure for various types you could 
use like with type classes, but you could supply a custom GroupStructure to 
the very same function if you wished. I think this may be the way type classes 
work in Coq, but I don't really have any experience using them there.

-- Dan

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