Skip to content
Branch: master
Find file Copy path
Fetching contributors…
Cannot retrieve contributors at this time
350 lines (262 sloc) 15.3 KB
layout title partof overview-name num languages permalink


Heather Miller, Eugene Burmako, Philipp Haller

Reflection is the ability of a program to inspect, and possibly even modify itself. It has a long history across object-oriented, functional, and logic programming paradigms. While some languages are built around reflection as a guiding principle, many languages progressively evolve their reflection abilities over time.

Reflection involves the ability to reify (ie. make explicit) otherwise-implicit elements of a program. These elements can be either static program elements like classes, methods, or expressions, or dynamic elements like the current continuation or execution events such as method invocations and field accesses. One usually distinguishes between compile-time and runtime reflection depending on when the reflection process is performed. Compile-time reflection is a powerful way to develop program transformers and generators, while runtime reflection is typically used to adapt the language semantics or to support very late binding between software components.

Until 2.10, Scala has not had any reflection capabilities of its own. Instead, one could use part of the Java reflection API, namely that dealing with providing the ability to dynamically inspect classes and objects and access their members. However, many Scala-specific elements are unrecoverable under standalone Java reflection, which only exposes Java elements (no functions, no traits) and types (no existential, higher-kinded, path-dependent and abstract types). In addition, Java reflection is also unable to recover runtime type info of Java types that are generic at compile-time; a restriction that carried through to runtime reflection on generic types in Scala.

In Scala 2.10, a new reflection library was introduced not only to address the shortcomings of Java’s runtime reflection on Scala-specific and generic types, but to also add a more powerful toolkit of general reflective capabilities to Scala. Along with full-featured runtime reflection for Scala types and generics, Scala 2.10 also ships with compile-time reflection capabilities, in the form of [macros]({{site.baseurl }}/overviews/macros/overview.html), as well as the ability to reify Scala expressions into abstract syntax trees.

Runtime Reflection

What is runtime reflection? Given a type or instance of some object at runtime, reflection is the ability to:

  • inspect the type of that object, including generic types,
  • to instantiate new objects,
  • or to access or invoke members of that object.

Let's jump in and see how to do each of the above with a few examples.


Inspecting a Runtime Type (Including Generic Types at Runtime)

As with other JVM languages, Scala's types are erased at compile time. This means that if you were to inspect the runtime type of some instance, that you might not have access to all type information that the Scala compiler has available at compile time.

TypeTags can be thought of as objects which carry along all type information available at compile time, to runtime. Though, it's important to note that TypeTags are always generated by the compiler. This generation is triggered whenever an implicit parameter or context bound requiring a TypeTag is used. This means that, typically, one can only obtain a TypeTag using implicit parameters or context bounds.

For example, using context bounds:

scala> import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe => ru}
import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe=>ru}

scala> val l = List(1,2,3)
l: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3)

scala> def getTypeTag[T: ru.TypeTag](obj: T) = ru.typeTag[T]
getTypeTag: [T](obj: T)(implicit evidence$1: ru.TypeTag[T])ru.TypeTag[T]

scala> val theType = getTypeTag(l).tpe
theType: ru.Type = List[Int]

In the above, we first import scala.reflect.runtime.universe (it must always be imported in order to use TypeTags), and we create a List[Int] called l. Then, we define a method getTypeTag which has a type parameter T that has a context bound (as the REPL shows, this is equivalent to defining an implicit "evidence" parameter, which causes the compiler to generate a TypeTag for T). Finally, we invoke our method with l as its parameter, and call tpe which returns the type contained in the TypeTag. As we can see, we get the correct, complete type (including List's concrete type argument), List[Int].

Once we have obtained the desired Type instance, we can inspect it, e.g.:

scala> val decls = theType.decls.take(10)
decls: Iterable[ru.Symbol] = List(constructor List, method companion, method isEmpty, method head, method tail, method ::, method :::, method reverse_:::, method mapConserve, method ++)

Instantiating a Type at Runtime

Types obtained through reflection can be instantiated by invoking their constructor using an appropriate "invoker" mirror (mirrors are expanded upon [below]({{ site.baseurl }}/overviews/reflection/overview.html#mirrors)). Let's walk through an example using the REPL:

scala> case class Person(name: String)
defined class Person

scala> val m = ru.runtimeMirror(getClass.getClassLoader)
m: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.Mirror = JavaMirror with ...

In the first step we obtain a mirror m which makes all classes and types available that are loaded by the current classloader, including class Person.

scala> val classPerson = ru.typeOf[Person].typeSymbol.asClass
classPerson: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.ClassSymbol = class Person

scala> val cm = m.reflectClass(classPerson)
cm: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.ClassMirror = class mirror for Person (bound to null)

The second step involves obtaining a ClassMirror for class Person using the reflectClass method. The ClassMirror provides access to the constructor of class Person.

scala> val ctor = ru.typeOf[Person].decl(ru.termNames.CONSTRUCTOR).asMethod
ctor: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.MethodSymbol = constructor Person

The symbol for Persons constructor can be obtained using only the runtime universe ru by looking it up in the declarations of type Person.

scala> val ctorm = cm.reflectConstructor(ctor)
ctorm: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.MethodMirror = constructor mirror for Person.<init>(name: String): Person (bound to null)

scala> val p = ctorm("Mike")
p: Any = Person(Mike)

Accessing and Invoking Members of Runtime Types

In general, members of runtime types are accessed using an appropriate "invoker" mirror (mirrors are expanded upon [below]({{ site.baseurl}}/overviews/reflection/overview.html#mirrors)). Let's walk through an example using the REPL:

scala> case class Purchase(name: String, orderNumber: Int, var shipped: Boolean)
defined class Purchase

scala> val p = Purchase("Jeff Lebowski", 23819, false)
p: Purchase = Purchase(Jeff Lebowski,23819,false)

In this example, we will attempt to get and set the shipped field of Purchase p, reflectively.

scala> import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe => ru}
import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe=>ru}

scala> val m = ru.runtimeMirror(p.getClass.getClassLoader)
m: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.Mirror = JavaMirror with ...

As we did in the previous example, we'll begin by obtaining a mirror m, which makes all classes and types available that are loaded by the classloader that also loaded the class of p (Purchase), which we need in order to access member shipped.

scala> val shippingTermSymb = ru.typeOf[Purchase].decl(ru.TermName("shipped")).asTerm
shippingTermSymb: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.TermSymbol = method shipped

We now look up the declaration of the shipped field, which gives us a TermSymbol (a type of Symbol). We'll need to use this Symbol later to obtain a mirror that gives us access to the value of this field (for some instance).

scala> val im = m.reflect(p)
im: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.InstanceMirror = instance mirror for Purchase(Jeff Lebowski,23819,false)

scala> val shippingFieldMirror = im.reflectField(shippingTermSymb)
shippingFieldMirror: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.FieldMirror = field mirror for Purchase.shipped (bound to Purchase(Jeff Lebowski,23819,false))

In order to access a specific instance's shipped member, we need a mirror for our specific instance, p's instance mirror, im. Given our instance mirror, we can obtain a FieldMirror for any TermSymbol representing a field of p's type.

Now that we have a FieldMirror for our specific field, we can use methods get and set to get/set our specific instance's shipped member. Let's change the status of shipped to true.

scala> shippingFieldMirror.get
res7: Any = false

scala> shippingFieldMirror.set(true)

scala> shippingFieldMirror.get
res9: Any = true

Runtime Classes in Java vs. Runtime Types in Scala

Those who are comfortable using Java reflection to obtain Java Class instances at runtime might have noticed that, in Scala, we instead obtain runtime types.

The REPL-run below shows a very simple scenario where using Java reflection on Scala classes might return surprising or incorrect results.

First, we define a base class E with an abstract type member T, and from it, we derive two subclasses, C and D.

scala> class E {
     |   type T
     |   val x: Option[T] = None
     | }
defined class E

scala> class C extends E
defined class C

scala> class D extends C
defined class D

Then, we create an instance of both C and D, meanwhile making type member T concrete (in both cases, String)

scala> val c = new C { type T = String }
c: C{type T = String} = $anon$1@7113bc51

scala> val d = new D { type T = String }
d: D{type T = String} = $anon$1@46364879

Now, we use methods getClass and isAssignableFrom from Java Reflection to obtain an instance of java.lang.Class representing the runtime classes of c and d, and then we test to see that d's runtime class is a subclass of c's runtime representation.

scala> c.getClass.isAssignableFrom(d.getClass)
res6: Boolean = false

Since above, we saw that D extends C, this result is a bit surprising. In performing this simple runtime type check, one would expect the result of the question "is the class of d a subclass of the class of c?" to be true. However, as you might've noticed above, when c and d are instantiated, the Scala compiler actually creates anonymous subclasses of C and D, respectively. This is due to the fact that the Scala compiler must translate Scala-specific (i.e., non-Java) language features into some equivalent in Java bytecode in order to be able to run on the JVM. Thus, the Scala compiler often creates synthetic classes (i.e. automatically-generated classes) that are used at runtime in place of user-defined classes. This is quite commonplace in Scala and can be observed when using Java reflection with a number of Scala features, e.g. closures, type members, type refinements, local classes, etc.

In situations like these, we can instead use Scala reflection to obtain precise runtime types of these Scala objects. Scala runtime types carry along all type info from compile-time, avoiding these types mismatches between compile-time and run-time.

Below, we use define a method which uses Scala reflection to get the runtime types of its arguments, and then checks the subtyping relationship between the two. If its first argument's type is a subtype of its second argument's type, it returns true.

scala> import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe => ru}
import scala.reflect.runtime.{universe=>ru}

scala> def m[T: ru.TypeTag, S: ru.TypeTag](x: T, y: S): Boolean = {
    |   val leftTag = ru.typeTag[T]
    |   val rightTag = ru.typeTag[S]
    |   leftTag.tpe <:< rightTag.tpe
    | }
m: [T, S](x: T, y: S)(implicit evidence$1: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.TypeTag[T], implicit evidence$2: scala.reflect.runtime.universe.TypeTag[S])Boolean

scala> m(d, c)
res9: Boolean = true

As we can see, we now get the expected result-- d's runtime type is indeed a subtype of c's runtime type.

Compile-time Reflection

Scala reflection enables a form of metaprogramming which makes it possible for programs to modify themselves at compile time. This compile-time reflection is realized in the form of macros, which provide the ability to execute methods that manipulate abstract syntax trees at compile-time.

A particularly interesting aspect of macros is that they are based on the same API used also for Scala's runtime reflection, provided in package scala.reflect.api. This enables the sharing of generic code between macros and implementations that utilize runtime reflection.

Note that [the macros guide]({{ site.baseurl }}/overviews/macros/overview.html) focuses on macro specifics, whereas this guide focuses on the general aspects of the reflection API. Many concepts directly apply to macros, though, such as abstract syntax trees which are discussed in greater detail in the section on [Symbols, Trees, and Types]({{site.baseurl }}/overviews/reflection/symbols-trees-types.html).


All reflection tasks require a proper environment to be set up. This environment differs based on whether the reflective task is to be done at run time or at compile time. The distinction between an environment to be used at run time or compile time is encapsulated in a so-called universe. Another important aspect of the reflective environment is the set of entities that we have reflective access to. This set of entities is determined by a so-called mirror.

Mirrors not only determine the set of entities that can be accessed reflectively. They also provide reflective operations to be performed on those entities. For example, in runtime reflection an invoker mirror can be used to invoke a method or constructor of a class.


Universe is the entry point to Scala reflection. A universe provides an interface to all the principal concepts used in reflection, such as Types, Trees, and Annotations. For more details, see the section of this guide on [Universes]({{ site.baseurl}}/overviews/reflection/environment-universes-mirrors.html), or the Universes API docs in package scala.reflect.api.

To use most aspects of Scala reflection, including most code examples provided in this guide, you need to make sure you import a Universe or the members of a Universe. Typically, to use runtime reflection, one can import all members of scala.reflect.runtime.universe, using a wildcard import:

import scala.reflect.runtime.universe._


Mirrors are a central part of Scala Reflection. All information provided by reflection is made accessible through these so-called mirrors. Depending on the type of information to be obtained, or the reflective action to be taken, different flavors of mirrors must be used.

For more details, see the section of this guide on [Mirrors]({{ site.baseurl}}/overviews/reflection/environment-universes-mirrors.html), or the Mirrors API docs in package scala.reflect.api.

You can’t perform that action at this time.