A Haskell feature proposal with TH prototype
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Update Nov 5, 2014: This proposal has been superseded by https://ghc.haskell.org/trac/ghc/wiki/InstanceTemplates , a very similar proposal with nicer syntax and more thorough description, by Richard Eisenberg (goldfire).

Instance Templates

Hardly any discussion of type class hierarchy goes without the common gripe that Applicative ought to be the superclass of Monad. However, restructuring this hierarchy would break a great deal of code, particularly if we removed redundant methods such as "pure". This recently happened when merely removing the Eq/Show constraints from Num.

This Haskell extension proposal provides a simple solution for reducing the need for boilerplate class instances. It is very similar to the Default Superclass Instances proposal, except that it introduces a new variety of declaration, instead of adding this capability directly to classes. It is also related Class Alias proposal, except that it fixes some issues of this proposal while combining the power of both.

This repository contains some other documentation about this extension, as well as a work-in-progress TH prototype of the feature. Other than the issues with TH and ConstraintKinds, the prototype does nearly everything that the actual feature would need to, sans a few fairly straightforward conveniences. Since this was possible in less than 400 lines of code (sans comments), I'm guessing / hoping that the that the changes to GHC would be correspondingly conservative. Many of these were helpers or reimplementing functionality that would be available within GHC, for example I have a version of Haskell's instance overlap detection (probably incorrectly, at that).


Typeclasses are naturally a source of API brittleness - doing almost anything to them but adding a method that has a reasonable default will cause a breakage of all the code that depends on your library. While superclass constraints have the benefits of providing algebraic properties and default method implementations, they are also very unwieldy once it becomes clear that the superclass constraints weren't gotten right the first time.

The default superclass instances proposal gives the following example:

class Functor f => Applicative f where
  return :: x -> f x
  (<*>) :: f (s -> t) -> f s -> f t

  (>>) :: f s -> f t -> f t
  fs >> ft = return (flip const) <*> fs <*> ft

  instance Functor f where
    fmap = (<*>) . return

-- Results in the instantiation of both Functor and Applicative.
instance Applicative ZipList where
  -- ...

With this extension, you could instead do:

class ApplicativeClass f where
  return :: x -> f x
  (<*>) :: f (s -> t) -> f s -> f t

  (>>) :: f s -> f t -> f t
  fs >> ft = return (flip const) <*> fs <*> ft

deriving class Applicative f where
  -- Uses the methods of "ApplicativeClass" as parameters (explained later)
  instance ApplicativeClass f

  instance Functor f where
    fmap = (<*>) . return

-- Results in the instantiation of both Functor and Applicative.
deriving instance Applicative ZipList where
  -- ... provide parameters (which implement ApplicativeClass) ...

The difference is that there are now two declarations - one which provides the actual type-class - and one which gives a name for a particular strategy for defining a set of instances. For this variety of examples, the extension is more verbose, but this is not an innate limitation - and trivial sugar can be given to regain the old syntax.

By having different names for different patterns of instantiation, we can later realize that there is a better way of specifying a set of instances, and replace our current declaration with a reference to that, without changing our API. In order to do this with superclass instance defaults, you would need to instantiate a different typeclass that has the desired defaults. But now the exported API is different - client code could have written constraints relying on the class that defined the defaults.

How They Work

Another way to do the example above would be to specify an instance template that can define an instance for Functor if there's already an instance of Applicative:

deriving class ApplicativeClass f => ApplicativeFunctor f where
  instance Functor f where
    fmap = (<*>) . return

instance ApplicativeClass ZipList where
  -- ...

deriving instance ApplicativeFunctor ZipList

The trivial, in-lining desugaring of this declaration looks like:

instance ApplicativeClass f => Functor f where
  fmap = (<*>) . return

If we also want to be able to get a Functor from a Monad instance, we can do:

deriving class Monad m => MonadicFunctor m where
  instance Functor m where
    fmap f x = x >>= return . f

It desugars similarly. With Superclass Default Instances we would have had a few ugly choices on our hands:

  • Add default instances to Monad and Applicative, and require "hiding" declarations whenever the user defines both.

  • Define separate classes akin to these templates, which unfortunately exposes (in the API) which was used to generate the Functor.

Note that this variety of instance templates allows for the generation of instances for classes that you do not control, giving us the ability to adapt one class hierarchy to another. However, this doesn't "come for free" - and requires that you explicitly request it.


The substitution of the instances generated by an instance template occurs in a referentially transparent fashion - it doesn't matter what the template is called, all that matters is how the parameters are substituted.

What parameters? There are two varieties: type parameters, and value parameters. The type parameters look the same as the type parameters of a typeclass, and the value parameters look the same as method signatures / defaults.

How are they substituted? Well, in the way you'd expect, but we need to determine how to resolve scope. I think that the proper decision here is to have the parameters shadow the scope as if they were provided via a where clause (at least for the methods).

Here's an example of how substitution works:

class Class a where
  method :: a

deriving Template a where
  parameter :: a
  instance Class a where
    method = parameter

deriving instance Template Int where
  parameter = 10

This template invocation could then be desugared to:

instance Class Int where
  method = parameter
      parameter = 10

(direct substitution would also work, but this de-sugaring makes the naming rules clear)

Note that despite these looking like instance declarations, "parameter" will not be exported as a method (this would require there to be a typeclass to attach it to). This is nice because it allows you to hide things that are merely configuration for the generated instances, which don't make sense to export for general usage on the datatypes.

One of the main applications of these instance templates is to export a template that allows for a specification that looks like it targets an old type-class, when it really targets one or more typeclasses in the new hierarchy. This gets around the issue described earlier of needing to "explicitly request" the derivation of instances. There are examples of doing this, as well as a description of how this allows Haskell source code to express most trivial API deltas.

Mixin Sugar

In the introduction, this was used with some handwaving to provide an equivalent definition of the Applicative from superclass defaults. The current plan for syntactic sugar is to have instance Foo a, without a where mean that the methods should "mixed in". In other words, they are used as parameters to the template, but are also provided to the instance. By having this sugar, much of the convenience of the "Class Alias" proposal is achieved.

For example, we can export a template which allows you to define a whole suite of operations:

deriving class Num a where
  instance Addable a
  instance Multiplicable a
-- etc ... (see tests folder for full code)

Or, for even more concision, this sugar could work with type constraint synonyms / tuples of constraints:

deriving class Num a where
  instance ( Addable a, Multiplicable a, ... )

Relationship to Superclass Default Instances

As mentioned in that page, default superclass instances have been a "matter of consternation" for some time, as no approach to the problem has been satisfying enough to be implemented. The functionality of Instance Templates is very similar to Superclass Default Instances, but there are a number of important distinctions that give it much more appealing properties:

The main distinction, as described earlier, is that this proposal gives a way to name different patterns of instantiating multiple instances, even if these patterns instantiate the same set of instances. This is simply not possible with Superclass Default Instances. As a result of not exporting

One ugliness of superclass default instances is that it tries to wedge in the features of the class alias proposal:

  • The method definitions in ...defs... are distributed to the appropriate instance declaration, according to which class the method belongs to.

  • Any methods that are not specified explicitly are "filled in" from the default definition given in the default superclass instance. (If there is no default definition, then a warning is produced, and a definition that calls error is used instead.)

This is very unprincipled - for one thing, having multiple superclass constraints use the same typeclass is impossible. Even more dire is the idea that you would want to mix your own function definitions into the default instances. The conceptual difference between "default" vs "generated" instance is really where these two proposals diverge.

Another difference is that the implicit suppression, to be described, can reasonably handle the interaction between multiple templates.

Module Envy

Those familiar with ML's module system might recognize the likeness of this idea to module functors. The analogy is more than superficial - one potential desugaring for instance templates would be fairly equivalent to the translation of Haskell modules to ML given by Stefan Wehr. I am not experienced enough with ML to know whether this translation and extension represent the full gamut of module functor capabilities. It certainly does not do module functors of higher order (I believe that there is a little-used ML extension for this).

One inspiration we can take from ML functors is having helper temporary values, in terms of the parameters, for use in multiple methods. For example, we could use instance templates to generate a Num instance whenever we have an instance of Num for some type that we have a bijection with:

data Bij a b = Bij
  { fwd :: (a -> b)
  , bwd :: (b -> a)

deriving class Num a => BijNum a b where
  bij :: Bij a b

  instance Num b where
    x + y = fwd bij (bwd bij x + bwd bij y)
    -- ...

But this pattern would get old fast, especially for higher arities. What if we could do this instead:

deriving class Num a => BijNum a b where
  bij :: Bij a b

  let bin f x y = fwd bij $ f (bwd bij x) (bwd bij y)

  instance Num b where
    (+) = bin (+)
    -- ...

Much better! When instantiated, these could de-sugar to unexported, uniquely named types.

We can get the equivalent of this for types by using type-equalities in the context of the template (assuming that something like -xScopedTypeVariables is enabled).

Usage in Constraints

It'd be nice to still have the property that instance heads can be used as constraints in polymorphic types. As luck would have it, the ConstraintKinds extension provides us just what we need - constraint synonyms!

type Monad m = (Functor m, Applicative m, Monadic m, MonadFail m)

On the topic of these more recent type-system enhancements, while I have not yet implemented it in the TH prototype, it seems like having type and data family declarations will be relatively straightforward. This is true of both the head of the deriving class (which resemble class syntax), and the generated instances (which use instance syntax).

This is because the parameters are directly substituted into the generated instance. So, a type family instance declaration will be substituted into all usages of that type family in the generated instances. It seems like data family declarations could be more problematic because it seems like their usage should usually be linear, as it makes less sense to define a data-type multiple times (the names of the constructors would conflict).

More Stuff

There's a bit more to say about this idea!

Thanks to all the people who gave me feedback and encouragement on this proposal! Constructive criticism is welcome!