[Haskell-cafe] more thoughts on "Finally tagless"

Tillmann Rendel rendel at Mathematik.Uni-Marburg.de
Tue Mar 9 10:19:43 EST 2010

Tom Schrijvers wrote:
>> Yeah, subject "Finally Tagless" again, sorry, I'm just not done with it yet.
>> In Olegs haskell implementation he is using classes mainly to model the
>> syntax and instances to use for evaluators / compilers to allow multiple
>> interpretations.
>> I wonder if it'd be possible to do the same without classes using data types
>> instead?
>> Something similar to what Luke Palmer has done here:
>> http://lukepalmer.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/haskell-antipattern-existential-typeclass/
> You can just use the dictionary translation of type classes to replace
> them with data types:
> E.g.
> class Eval sem where
>   val :: Int -> sem Int
>   add :: sem Int -> sem Int -> sem Int
>> -->
> data EvalDict sem = EvalDict { val :: Int -> sem Int, add :: sem Int
> -> sem Int -> sem Int }

This is the way to program in the final tagless style without using type
classes, but there is an important difference to what Luke Palmer did in
the blog post cited above. While both approaches allow to encode type
classes using data types, they are technically different, and applicable
for different programs.

In the dictionary approach, the dictionary contains fields of the same
types as the members of the class. For example, val has the type Int ->
sem Int in both the type class and the data type.

This is not the case in the pattern described by Luke. There, the w type
is dropped from the types of the methods when converting to a data type.
For example, the type of growHorizontal is w -> Bool in the type class,
but simply Bool in the data type.

The reason for this difference is that Luke uses the fact that w is
going to be always existentially bound, so it will not be externally
usable anyway. The information contained in the w values can just as
well be stored in each of the fields of the data type.

The dictionary approach encodes abstract data types: The data type is
the interface, each value of the data type is an implementation, and a
function which takes the dictionary and is parametric in the type
parameters of the dictionary is a program which uses the data type

For example, a program using the Eval abstract data type from above
could look like this:

   -- using the type class
   add_two :: Eval sem => sem -> sem
   add_two x = add x (val 2)

   -- using the dictionary
   add_two :: EvalDict sem -> sem -> sem
   add_two dict x = add dict x (val dict 2)

On the other hand, Luke describes an encoding of objects: The data type
describes the interface of an object, and each value of that data type
is an object, with possibly different implementations of each function
in the interface. A program using these objects can invent arbitrary new
objects, as long as all fields in the interface are defined.

Since abstract data types and objects are fundamentally different, so
are these two programming patterns.


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