[Haskell-cafe] What are the problems with instances for polymorphic types?

Adam Gundry adam at well-typed.com
Tue Jun 17 19:43:46 UTC 2014

On 16/06/14 11:14, Niklas Haas wrote:
> On Sun, 15 Jun 2014 21:47:52 +0200, Gábor Lehel <glaebhoerl at gmail.com> wrote:
>> In other words instances for forall-types, such as:
>>     instance Foo (forall a. [a]) where ...
>> It feels obvious to me that there *would* be problems with this, but I'm
>> curious about what, exactly, they are.
>> Could someone familiar with the matter either elaborate on them, or refer
>> me to an existing explanation, a previous discussion, or something of the
>> sort?
>> I *don't* have any kind of use case in mind, I'm merely seeking a better
>> understanding of the type-system issues involved.
>> (I attempted Google, but didn't have much success.)
>> Thanks in advance.
> It seems to me that it may be possible to get more information about
> this by searching for issues related to ImpredicativeTypes, which seem
> to be similar. (In fact, one could simulate instances like these by
> implementing type classes using ImplicitParams + ImpredicativeTypes +
> explicit instance records)

I don't think there has been much research on type inference for these
kind of instances (though I'd be happy to be corrected). They are sort
of like ImpredicativeTypes but worse, in that it is very hard to tell
where the invisible type abstractions and applications go.

For example, suppose we have these declarations:

    class Foo t where
       useFoo :: t -> Int

    instance Foo (forall a. [a]) where
        useFoo x = length (x :: [()])

    f = useFoo []

The class and instance declarations make sense (the instance declaration
ends up checking `useFoo` with a higher-rank type, but that's okay). But
when inferring the type of `f`, we have

    useFoo :: forall t . Foo t => t -> Int

and the typechecker needs to magically guess that

    t ~ forall a . [a]

which is difficult.  If there was some way of explicitly writing the
type at which to instantiate `t`, for example

    f = useFoo @(forall a. [a]) []

then it might be possible to make progress. [1]

All this would, however, make perfect sense in System FC, once type
abstractions and applications have been made explicit, and typeclass
constraints have been replaced with visible dictionaries.

Hope this helps,


[1] https://ghc.haskell.org/trac/ghc/wiki/TypeApplication

Adam Gundry, Haskell Consultant
Well-Typed LLP, http://www.well-typed.com/

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