Type classes for C# programmers
2012-07-15 · 1317 words · 7 min

Rich Hickey talked about ways to avoid complexity in programming. One of the the approaches he emphasized was to utilize polymorphism à la carte, which is a reference to a Clojure feature called protocols designed to address the expression problem. He compared this technique to type classes, as a similar feature found in other languages.

Type classes was initially introduced in Haskell and has later been adopted by Scala in the form of implicit parameters. Presumably users of those languages will be exposed to the benefits they bring in some form or other and traced it to this construct. Those who are stuck with a less capable language, like C#, run a slightly lower chance of running in to them and realize what they are though.

This is my attempt to illustrate the concept of type classes for you, and how, to the extent possible in C#, they can be used in day to day design of programs.

The Expressed Problem

Let us first of all start with an interesting problem to serve as our guide. Lets take something straight forward like: Implement a sum-operation, it should take collection of values and return the result of adding them all together.

$$f(S) = \displaystyle\sum_{x \in S} x$$

The monomorphic approach

We could try to implement this by simple case analysis like so:

public static object Sum(this IEnumerable vals, object zero) {
    if (zero is int) {
        int sum = (int)zero;
        foreach (int i in (IEnumerable<int>)vals)
            sum += i;
        return sum;
    throw new NotImplementedException();

One major problem with this approach is that we have to edit and recompile this code each time someone would like to support another case for an addable type. Which is precisely what the expression problem is all about.

It also suffers from lack of type safety. Invoking this code will compile even if the type we are trying to sum isn't supported.

Ad-hoc polymorphism

When the case analysis only dispatches on type we can simply use overloading to implement the different cases, so called ad-hoc polymorphism.

public static int Sum(this IEnumerable<int> ints) {
    var sum = 0;
    foreach (var i in ints)
        sum += i;
    return sum;

public static string Sum(this IEnumerable<string> strings) {
    var sum = string.Empty;
    foreach (var s in strings)
        sum += s;
    return sum;

Now anyone can add cases by simply implementing Sum for their type. As a nice side-effect we can also let the implementation dictate the zero case.

However, as you can see, the code is basically copied for each type. As good programmers our instinct is to generalize the algorithm for all supported types to remove this blatant violation of the DRY principle. One problem we must overcome first is that our add-operation is just as ad-hoc as our sum-operation.

Subtype polymorphism

Lets apply the standard OOP-solution, subtype polymorphism, to fix this:

public interface Addable
    Addable Add(Addable addend);

// To support the empty case we have to ask the caller to supply the zero value.
public static Addable Sum(this IEnumerable<Addable> summables, Addable zero) {
    var sum = zero;
    foreach (var s in summables)
        sum = sum.Add(s);
    return sum;

Adding cases is still possible by simply implementing Addable. Unfortunately we can't actually do this for types we can't control, like int and string. Which is the other side of the expression problem.

Unfortunately we are also now back not knowing what to do with the zero-case.

This particular implementation also suffers from a type safety issue where each Add-implementation must check for compatible types at run-time.

Parametric Subtype Polymorphism

We can fix this with type parameters, which I'll include here just so you can stop thinking about it.

public interface Addable<ThisType> where ThisType : Addable<ThisType>  
    ThisType Add(ThisType addend);

public static T Sum<T>(this IEnumerable<T> summables, T zero) where T : Addable<T> {
    var sum = zero;
    foreach (var s in summables)
        sum = sum.Add(s);
    return sum;

We still need to fix the bigger issue of how to add cases for types we can't edit though.

Parametric Polymorphism

To resolve the situation we could abandon the Addable abstraction and rely entirely on parametric polymorphism where we ask the caller supply us both with the zero case and the add-operation.

public static T Sum<T>(this IEnumerable<T> summables, T zero, Func<T, T, T> add)
    var sum = zero;
    foreach (var s in summables)
        sum = add(sum, s);
    return sum;

// In fact, this operation is already provided by LINQ
public static T LINQSum<T>(this IEnumerable<T> summables, T zero, Func<T, T, T> add)
    return summables.Aggregate(zero, add);

Now we can sum anything that someone could provide a zero and an add operation for and neither our Sum-operation or any types needs to change to support new cases.

The problem is that we've put the responsibility of verifying the contract of the add-operation on to the caller of our Sum-operation. Not a very nice thing to do.

The Monoid

We would like to declare the contract which our Sum-operation depends on, and we would like implementations of this contract to be available to our poor API-user.

Our contract stipulates the relationship between add and zero like so: $$\forall x, y, z \in \mathrm{T} \begin{cases} \mathrm{add}(\mathrm{zero}, x) = x, & \text{Left identity} \\ \mathrm{add}(x, \mathrm{zero}) = x, & \text{Right identity} \\ \mathrm{add}(\mathrm{add}(x, y), z) = \mathrm{add}(x, \mathrm{add}(y, z)), & \text{Associative} \end{cases}$$

In fact there is a concept like this in abstract algebra called a Monoid.

public sealed class Monoid<T> : TypeClass
    public readonly T Zero;
    public readonly Func<T, T, T> Add;

    public Monoid(T zero, Func<T, T, T> add) {
        Law("Left identity",    (T x) => add(zero, x).Equals(x));
        Law("Right identity",   (T x) => add(x, zero).Equals(x));
        Law("Associative",      (T x, T y, T z) =>
            add(add(x, y), z).Equals(add(x, add(y, z))));

        this.Zero = zero;
        this.Add = add;


Given this contract we can use it as a dependency for our Sum:

public static T Sum<T>(this IEnumerable<T> summables, Monoid<T> mon) {
    return summables.Aggregate(mon.Zero, mon.Add);

Type Classes

Now we have a fully generic sum operation where the contract for being summable is extracted into the Monoid type class.

Adding new cases requires no recompilation of either types or the Sum-implementation. While still requesting a monoid from the API-user, we are certain that it conforms to our contract, and it's possible for anyone to provide usable implementations to the user.

In languages with first class support for type classes (like Haskell and Scala) type class instances are provided implicitly by the compiler making the invocation of the operation look like ordinary ad-hoc polymorphism.

In C# we have no such luxury at compile time, but could use dependency injection to provide a similar service at runtime.

public static T Sum<T>(this IEnumerable<T> ts) {
    var mon = ObjectFactory.GetInstance<Monoid<T>>();
    return ts.Aggregate(mon.Zero, mon.Add);

A slightly more verbose approach is to revert back to the original ad-hoc polymorphism. But this time we can reuse all parts of the code. We could even generate this code using a T4 template.

public static readonly Monoid<int> INT_ADDITION_MONOID =
    new Monoid<int>(0, (x, y) => x + y);

public static int Sum(this IEnumerable<int> vals) {
    return vals.Sum(INT_ADDITION_MONOID);

public static readonly Monoid<string> STRING_MONOID =
    new Monoid<string>(string.Empty, string.Concat);

public static string Sum(this IEnumerable<string> vals) {
    return vals.Sum(STRING_MONOID);

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