January 2015

This is part of Categories for Programmers. Previously: Simple Algebraic Data Types. See the Table of Contents.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will say this about functors: A functor is a very simple but powerful idea. Category theory is just full of those simple but powerful ideas. A functor is a mapping between categories. Given two categories, C and D, a functor F maps objects in C to objects in D — it’s a function on objects. If a is an object in C, we’ll write its image in D as F a (no parentheses). But a category is not just objects — it’s objects and morphisms that connect them. A functor also maps morphisms — it’s a function on morphisms. But it doesn’t map morphisms willy-nilly — it preserves connections. So if a morphism f in C connects object a to object b,

f :: a -> b

the image of f in D, F f, will connect the image of a to the image of b:

F f :: F a -> F b

(This is a mixture of mathematical and Haskell notation that hopefully makes sense by now. I won’t use parentheses when applying functors to objects or morphisms.) Functor As you can see, a functor preserves the structure of a category: what’s connected in one category will be connected in the other category. But there’s something more to the structure of a category: there’s also the composition of morphisms. If h is a composition of f and g:

h = g . f

we want its image under F to be a composition of the images of f and g:

F h = F g . F f

FunctorCompos Finally, we want all identity morphisms in C to be mapped to identity morphisms in D:

F ida = idF a

Here, ida is the identity at the object a, and idF a the identity at F a. FunctorId Note that these conditions make functors much more restrictive than regular functions. Functors must preserve the structure of a category. If you picture a category as a collection of objects held together by a network of morphisms, a functor is not allowed to introduce any tears into this fabric. It may smash objects together, it may glue multiple morphisms into one, but it may never break things apart. This no-tearing constraint is similar to the continuity condition you might know from calculus. In this sense functors are “continuous” (although there exists an even more restrictive notion of continuity for functors). Just like functions, functors may do both collapsing and embedding. The embedding aspect is more prominent when the source category is much smaller than the target category. In the extreme, the source can be the trivial singleton category — a category with one object and one morphism (the identity). A functor from the singleton category to any other category simply selects an object in that category. This is fully analogous to the property of morphisms from singleton sets selecting elements in target sets. The maximally collapsing functor is called the constant functor Δc. It maps every object in the source category to one selected object c in the target category. It also maps every morphism in the source category to the identity morphism idc. It acts like a black hole, compacting everything into one singularity. We’ll see more of this functor when we discuss limits and colimits.

Functors in Programming

Let’s get down to earth and talk about programming. We have our category of types and functions. We can talk about functors that map this category into itself — such functors are called endofunctors. So what’s an endofunctor in the category of types? First of all, it maps types to types. We’ve seen examples of such mappings, maybe without realizing that they were just that. I’m talking about definitions of types that were parameterized by other types. Let’s see a few examples.

The Maybe Functor

The definition of Maybe is a mapping from type a to type Maybe a:

data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a

Here’s an important subtlety: Maybe itself is not a type, it’s a type constructor. You have to give it a type argument, like Int or Bool, in order to turn it into a type. Maybe without any argument represents a function on types. But can we turn Maybe into a functor? (From now on, when I speak of functors in the context of programming, I will almost always mean endofunctors.) A functor is not only a mapping of objects (here, types) but also a mapping of morphisms (here, functions). For any function from a to b:

f :: a -> b

we would like to produce a function from Maybe a to Maybe b. To define such a function, we’ll have two cases to consider, corresponding to the two constructors of Maybe. The Nothing case is simple: we’ll just return Nothing back. And if the argument is Just, we’ll apply the function f to its contents. So the image of f under Maybe is the function:

f’ :: Maybe a -> Maybe b
f’ Nothing = Nothing
f’ (Just x) = Just (f x)

(By the way, in Haskell you can use apostrophes in variables names, which is very handy in cases like these.) In Haskell, we implement the morphism-mapping part of a functor as a higher order function called fmap. In the case of Maybe, it has the following signature:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (Maybe a -> Maybe b)

FunctorMaybe We often say that fmap lifts a function. The lifted function acts on Maybe values. As usual, because of currying, this signature may be interpreted in two ways: as a function of one argument — which itself is a function (a->b) — returning a function (Maybe a -> Maybe b); or as a function of two arguments returning Maybe b:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> Maybe a -> Maybe b

Based on our previous discussion, this is how we implement fmap for Maybe:

fmap _ Nothing = Nothing
fmap f (Just x) = Just (f x)

To show that the type constructor Maybe together with the function fmap form a functor, we have to prove that fmap preserves identity and composition. These are called “the functor laws,” but they simply ensure the preservation of the structure of the category.

Equational Reasoning

To prove the functor laws, I will use equational reasoning, which is a common proof technique in Haskell. It takes advantage of the fact that Haskell functions are defined as equalities: the left hand side equals the right hand side. You can always substitute one for another, possibly renaming variables to avoid name conflicts. Think of this as either inlining a function, or the other way around, refactoring an expression into a function. Let’s take the identity function as an example:

id x = x

If you see, for instance, id y in some expression, you can replace it with y (inlining). Further, if you see id applied to an expression, say id (y + 2), you can replace it with the expression itself (y + 2). And this substitution works both ways: you can replace any expression e with id e (refactoring). If a function is defined by pattern matching, you can use each sub-definition independently. For instance, given the above definition of fmap you can replace fmap f Nothing with Nothing, or the other way around. Let’s see how this works in practice. Let’s start with the preservation of identity:

fmap id = id

There are two cases to consider: Nothing and Just. Here’s the first case (I’m using Haskell pseudo-code to transform the left hand side to the right hand side):

  fmap id Nothing 
= { definition of fmap }
= { definition of id }
  id Nothing

Notice that in the last step I used the definition of id backwards. I replaced the expression Nothing with id Nothing. In practice, you carry out such proofs by “burning the candle at both ends,” until you hit the same expression in the middle — here it was Nothing. The second case is also easy:

  fmap id (Just x) 
= { definition of fmap }
  Just (id x) 
= { definition of id }
  Just x
= { definition of id }
  id (Just x)

Now, lets show that fmap preserves composition:

fmap (g . f) = fmap g . fmap f

First the Nothing case:

  fmap (g . f) Nothing 
= { definition of fmap }
= { definition of fmap }
  fmap g Nothing
= { definition of fmap }
  fmap g (fmap f Nothing)

And then the Just case:

  fmap (g . f) (Just x)
= { definition of fmap }
  Just ((g . f) x)
= { definition of composition }
  Just (g (f x))
= { definition of fmap }
  fmap g (Just (f x))
= { definition of fmap }
  fmap g (fmap f (Just x))
= { definition of composition }
  (fmap g . fmap f) (Just x)

It’s worth stressing that equational reasoning doesn’t work for C++ style “functions” with side effects. Consider this code:

int square(int x) {
    return x * x;

int counter() {
    static int c = 0;
    return c++;

double y = square(counter());

Using equational reasoning, you would be able to inline square to get:

double y = counter() * counter();

This is definitely not a valid transformation, and it will not produce the same result. Despite that, the C++ compiler will try to use equational reasoning if you implement square as a macro, with disastrous results.


Functors are easily expressed in Haskell, but they can be defined in any language that supports generic programming and higher-order functions. Let’s consider the C++ analog of Maybe, the template type optional. Here’s a sketch of the implementation (the actual implementation is much more complex, dealing with various ways the argument may be passed, with copy semantics, and with the resource management issues characteristic of C++):

template<class T>
class optional {
    bool _isValid; // the tag
    T    _v;
    optional()    : _isValid(false) {}         // Nothing
    optional(T x) : _isValid(true) , _v(x) {}  // Just
    bool isValid() const { return _isValid; }
    T val() const { return _v; }

This template provides one part of the definition of a functor: the mapping of types. It maps any type T to a new type optional<T>. Let’s define its action on functions:

template<class A, class B>
fmap(std::function<B(A)> f) 
    return [f](optional<A> opt) {
        if (!opt.isValid())
            return optional<B>{};
            return optional<B>{ f(opt.val()) };

This is a higher order function, taking a function as an argument and returning a function. Here’s the uncurried version of it:

template<class A, class B>
optional<B> fmap(std::function<B(A)> f, optional<A> opt) {
    if (!opt.isValid())
        return optional<B>{};
        return optional<B>{ f(opt.val()) };

There is also an option of making fmap a template method of optional. This embarrassment of choices makes abstracting the functor pattern in C++ a problem. Should functor be an interface to inherit from (unfortunately, you can’t have template virtual functions)? Should it be a curried or an uncurried free template function? Can the C++ compiler correctly infer the missing types, or should they be specified explicitly? Consider a situation where the input function f takes an int to a bool. How will the compiler figure out the type of g:

auto g = fmap(f);

especially if, in the future, there are multiple functors overloading fmap? (We’ll see more functors soon.)


So how does Haskell deal with abstracting the functor? It uses the typeclass mechanism. A typeclass defines a family of types that support a common interface. For instance, the class of objects that support equality is defined as follows:

class Eq a where
    (==) :: a -> a -> Bool

This definition states that type a is of the class Eq if it supports the operator (==) that takes two arguments of type a and returns a Bool. If you want to tell Haskell that a particular type is Eq, you have to declare it an instance of this class and provide the implementation of (==). For example, given the definition of a 2D Point (a product type of two Floats):

data Point = Pt Float Float

you can define the equality of points:

instance Eq Point where
    (Pt x y) == (Pt x' y') = x == x' && y == y'

Here I used the operator (==) (the one I’m defining) in the infix position between the two patterns (Pt x y) and (Pt x' y'). The body of the function follows the single equal sign. Once Point is declared an instance of Eq, you can directly compare points for equality. Notice that, unlike in C++ or Java, you don’t have to specify the Eq class (or interface) when defining Point — you can do it later in client code. Typeclasses are also Haskell’s only mechanism for overloading functions (and operators). We will need that for overloading fmap for different functors. There is one complication, though: a functor is not defined as a type but as a mapping of types, a type constructor. We need a typeclass that’s not a family of types, as was the case with Eq, but a family of type constructors. Fortunately a Haskell typeclass works with type constructors as well as with types. So here’s the definition of the Functor class:

class Functor f where
    fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

It stipulates that f is a Functor if there exists a function fmap with the specified type signature. The lowercase f is a type variable, similar to type variables a and b. The compiler, however, is able to deduce that it represents a type constructor rather than a type by looking at its usage: acting on other types, as in f a and f b. Accordingly, when declaring an instance of Functor, you have to give it a type constructor, as is the case with Maybe:

instance Functor Maybe where
    fmap _ Nothing = Nothing
    fmap f (Just x) = Just (f x)

By the way, the Functor class, as well as its instance definitions for a lot of simple data types, including Maybe, are part of the standard Prelude library.

Functor in C++

Can we try the same approach in C++? A type constructor corresponds to a template class, like optional, so by analogy, we would parameterize fmap with a template template parameter F. This is the syntax for it:

template<template<class> F, class A, class B>
F<B> fmap(std::function<B(A)>, F<A>);

We would like to be able to specialize this template for different functors. Unfortunately, there is a prohibition against partial specialization of template functions in C++. You can’t write:

template<class A, class B>
optional<B> fmap<optional>(std::function<B(A)> f, optional<A> opt)

Instead, we have to fall back on function overloading, which brings us back to the original definition of the uncurried fmap:

template<class A, class B>
optional<B> fmap(std::function<B(A)> f, optional<A> opt) 
    if (!opt.isValid())
        return optional<B>{};
        return optional<B>{ f(opt.val()) };

This definition works, but only because the second argument of fmap selects the overload. It totally ignores the more generic definition of fmap.

The List Functor

To get some intuition as to the role of functors in programming, we need to look at more examples. Any type that is parameterized by another type is a candidate for a functor. Generic containers are parameterized by the type of the elements they store, so let’s look at a very simple container, the list:

data List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)

We have the type constructor List, which is a mapping from any type a to the type List a. To show that List is a functor we have to define the lifting of functions: Given a function a->b define a function List a -> List b:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (List a -> List b)

A function acting on List a must consider two cases corresponding to the two list constructors. The Nil case is trivial — just return Nil — there isn’t much you can do with an empty list. The Cons case is a bit tricky, because it involves recursion. So let’s step back for a moment and consider what we are trying to do. We have a list of a, a function f that turns a to b, and we want to generate a list of b. The obvious thing is to use f to turn each element of the list from a to b. How do we do this in practice, given that a (non-empty) list is defined as the Cons of a head and a tail? We apply f to the head and apply the lifted (fmapped) f to the tail. This is a recursive definition, because we are defining lifted f in terms of lifted f:

fmap f (Cons x t) = Cons (f x) (fmap f t)

Notice that, on the right hand side, fmap f is applied to a list that’s shorter than the list for which we are defining it — it’s applied to its tail. We recurse towards shorter and shorter lists, so we are bound to eventually reach the empty list, or Nil. But as we’ve decided earlier, fmap f acting on Nil returns Nil, thus terminating the recursion. To get the final result, we combine the new head (f x) with the new tail (fmap f t) using the Cons constructor. Putting it all together, here’s the instance declaration for the list functor:

instance Functor List where
    fmap _ Nil = Nil
    fmap f (Cons x t) = Cons (f x) (fmap f t)

If you are more comfortable with C++, consider the case of a std::vector, which could be considered the most generic C++ container. The implementation of fmap for std::vector is just a thin encapsulation of std::transform:

template<class A, class B>
std::vector<B> fmap(std::function<B(A)> f, std::vector<A> v)
    std::vector<B> w;
    std::transform( std::begin(v)
                  , std::end(v)
                  , std::back_inserter(w)
                  , f);
    return w;

We can use it, for instance, to square the elements of a sequence of numbers:

std::vector<int> v{ 1, 2, 3, 4 };
auto w = fmap([](int i) { return i*i; }, v);
std::copy( std::begin(w)
         , std::end(w)
         , std::ostream_iterator(std::cout, ", "));

Most C++ containers are functors by virtue of implementing iterators that can be passed to std::transform, which is the more primitive cousin of fmap. Unfortunately, the simplicity of a functor is lost under the usual clutter of iterators and temporaries (see the implementation of fmap above). I’m happy to say that the new proposed C++ range library makes the functorial nature of ranges much more pronounced.

The Reader Functor

Now that you might have developed some intuitions — for instance, functors being some kind of containers — let me show you an example which at first sight looks very different. Consider a mapping of type a to the type of a function returning a. We haven’t really talked about function types in depth — the full categorical treatment is coming — but we have some understanding of those as programmers. In Haskell, a function type is constructed using the arrow type constructor (->) which takes two types: the argument type and the result type. You’ve already seen it in infix form, a->b, but it can equally well be used in prefix form, when parenthesized:

(->) a b

Just like with regular functions, type functions of more than one argument can be partially applied. So when we provide just one type argument to the arrow, it still expects another one. That’s why:

(->) a

is a type constructor. It needs one more type b to produce a complete type a->b. As it stands, it defines a whole family of type constructors parameterized by a. Let’s see if this is also a family of functors. Dealing with two type parameters can get a bit confusing, so let’s do some renaming. Let’s call the argument type r and the result type a, in line with our previous functor definitions. So our type constructor takes any type a and maps it into the type r->a. To show that it’s a functor, we want to lift a function a->b to a function that takes r->a and returns r->b. These are the types that are formed using the type constructor (->) r acting on, respectively, a and b. Here’s the type signature of fmap applied to this case:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (r -> a) -> (r -> b)

We have to solve the following puzzle: given a function f::a->b and a function g::r->a, create a function r->b. There is only one way we can compose the two functions, and the result is exactly what we need. So here’s the implementation of our fmap:

instance Functor ((->) r) where
    fmap f g = f . g

It just works! If you like terse notation, this definition can be reduced further by noticing that composition can be rewritten in prefix form:

fmap f g = (.) f g

and the arguments can be omitted to yield a direct equality of two functions:

fmap = (.)

This combination of the type constructor (->) r with the above implementation of fmap is called the reader functor.

Functors as Containers

We’ve seen some examples of functors in programming languages that define general-purpose containers, or at least objects that contain some value of the type they are parameterized over. The reader functor seems to be an outlier, because we don’t think of functions as data. But we’ve seen that pure functions can be memoized, and function execution can be turned into table lookup. Tables are data. Conversely, because of Haskell’s laziness, a traditional container, like a list, may actually be implemented as a function. Consider, for instance, an infinite list of natural numbers, which can be compactly defined as:

nats :: [Integer]
nats = [1..]

In the first line, a pair of square brackets is Haskell’s built-in type constructor for lists. In the second line, square brackets are used to create a list literal. Obviously, an infinite list like this cannot be stored in memory. The compiler implements it as a function that generates Integers on demand. Haskell effectively blurs the distinction between data and code. A list could be considered a function, and a function could be considered a table that maps arguments to results. The latter can even be practical if the domain of the function is finite and not too large. It would not be practical, however, to implement strlen as table lookup, because there are infinitely many different strings. As programmers, we don’t like infinities, but in category theory you learn to eat infinities for breakfast. Whether it’s a set of all strings or a collection of all possible states of the Universe, past, present, and future — we can deal with it! So I like to think of the functor object (an object of the type generated by an endofunctor) as containing a value or values of the type over which it is parameterized, even if these values are not physically present there. One example of a functor is a C++ std::future, which may at some point contain a value, but it’s not guaranteed it will; and if you want to access it, you may block waiting for another thread to finish execution. Another example is a Haskell IO object, which may contain user input, or the future versions of our Universe with “Hello World!” displayed on the monitor. According to this interpretation, a functor object is something that may contain a value or values of the type it’s parameterized upon. Or it may contain a recipe for generating those values. We are not at all concerned about being able to access the values — that’s totally optional, and outside of the scope of the functor. All we are interested in is to be able to manipulate those values using functions. If the values can be accessed, then we should be able to see the results of this manipulation. If they can’t, then all we care about is that the manipulations compose correctly and that the manipulation with an identity function doesn’t change anything. Just to show you how much we don’t care about being able to access the values inside a functor object, here’s a type constructor that ignores completely its argument a:

data Const c a = Const c

The Const type constructor takes two types, c and a. Just like we did with the arrow constructor, we are going to partially apply it to create a functor. The data constructor (also called Const) takes just one value of type c. It has no dependence on a. The type of fmap for this type constructor is:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> Const c a -> Const c b

Because the functor ignores its type argument, the implementation of fmap is free to ignore its function argument — the function has nothing to act upon:

instance Functor (Const c) where
    fmap _ (Const v) = Const v

This might be a little clearer in C++ (I never thought I would utter those words!), where there is a stronger distinction between type arguments — which are compile-time — and values, which are run-time:

template<class C, class A>
struct Const {
    Const(C v) : _v(v) {}
    C _v;

The C++ implementation of fmap also ignores the function argument and essentially re-casts the Const argument without changing its value:

template<class C, class A, class B>
Const<C, B> fmap(std::function<B(A)> f, Const<C, A> c) {
    return Const<C, B>{c._v};

Despite its weirdness, the Const functor plays an important role in many constructions. In category theory, it’s a special case of the Δc functor I mentioned earlier — the endo-functor case of a black hole. We’ll be seeing more of it it in the future.

Functor Composition

It’s not hard to convince yourself that functors between categories compose, just like functions between sets compose. A composition of two functors, when acting on objects, is just the composition of their respective object mappings; and similarly when acting on morphisms. After jumping through two functors, identity morphisms end up as identity morphisms, and compositions of morphisms finish up as compositions of morphisms. There’s really nothing much to it. In particular, it’s easy to compose endofunctors. Remember the function maybeTail? I’ll rewrite it using Haskell’s built in implementation of lists:

maybeTail :: [a] -> Maybe [a]
maybeTail [] = Nothing
maybeTail (x:xs) = Just xs

(The empty list constructor that we used to call Nil is replaced with the empty pair of square brackets []. The Cons constructor is replaced with the infix operator : (colon).) The result of maybeTail is of a type that’s a composition of two functors, Maybe and [], acting on a. Each of these functors is equipped with its own version of fmap, but what if we want to apply some function f to the contents of the composite: a Maybe list? We have to break through two layers of functors. We can use fmap to break through the outer Maybe. But we can’t just send f inside Maybe because f doesn’t work on lists. We have to send (fmap f) to operate on the inner list. For instance, let’s see how we can square the elements of a Maybe list of integers:

square x = x * x

mis :: Maybe [Int]
mis = Just [1, 2, 3]

mis2 = fmap (fmap square) mis

The compiler, after analyzing the types, will figure out that, for the outer fmap, it should use the implementation from the Maybe instance, and for the inner one, the list functor implementation. It may not be immediately obvious that the above code may be rewritten as:

mis2 = (fmap . fmap) square mis

But remember that fmap may be considered a function of just one argument:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (f a -> f b)

In our case, the second fmap in (fmap . fmap) takes as its argument:

square :: Int -> Int

and returns a function of the type:

[Int] -> [Int]

The first fmap then takes that function and returns a function:

Maybe [Int] -> Maybe [Int]

Finally, that function is applied to mis. So the composition of two functors is a functor whose fmap is the composition of the corresponding fmaps. Going back to category theory: It’s pretty obvious that functor composition is associative (the mapping of objects is associative, and the mapping of morphisms is associative). And there is also a trivial identity functor in every category: it maps every object to itself, and every morphism to itself. So functors have all the same properties as morphisms in some category. But what category would that be? It would have to be a category in which objects are categories and morphisms are functors. It’s a category of categories. But a category of all categories would have to include itself, and we would get into the same kinds of paradoxes that made the set of all sets impossible. There is, however, a category of all small categories called Cat (which is big, so it can’t be a member of itself). A small category is one in which objects form a set, as opposed to something larger than a set. Mind you, in category theory, even an infinite uncountable set is considered “small.” I thought I’d mention these things because I find it pretty amazing that we can recognize the same structures repeating themselves at many levels of abstraction. We’ll see later that functors form categories as well.


  1. Can we turn the Maybe type constructor into a functor by defining:
    fmap _ _ = Nothing

    which ignores both of its arguments? (Hint: Check the functor laws.)

  2. Prove functor laws for the reader functor. Hint: it’s really simple.
  3. Implement the reader functor in your second favorite language (the first being Haskell, of course).
  4. Prove the functor laws for the list functor. Assume that the laws are true for the tail part of the list you’re applying it to (in other words, use induction).


Gershom Bazerman is kind enough to keep reviewing these posts. I’m grateful for his patience and insight.

Next: Functoriality

Categories for Programmers. Previously Products and Coproducts. See the Table of Contents.

We’ve seen two basic ways of combining types: using a product and a coproduct. It turns out that a lot of data structures in everyday programming can be built using just these two mechanisms. This fact has important practical consequences. Many properties of data structures are composable. For instance, if you know how to compare values of basic types for equality, and you know how to generalize these comparisons to product and coproduct types, you can automate the derivation of equality operators for composite types. In Haskell you can automatically derive equality, comparison, conversion to and from string, and more, for a large subset of composite types.

Let’s have a closer look at product and sum types as they appear in programming.

Product Types

The canonical implementation of a product of two types in a programming language is a pair. In Haskell, a pair is a primitive type constructor; in C++ it’s a relatively complex template defined in the Standard Library.


Pairs are not strictly commutative: a pair (Int, Bool) cannot be substituted for a pair (Bool, Int), even though they carry the same information. They are, however, commutative up to isomorphism — the isomorphism being given by the swap function (which is its own inverse):

swap :: (a, b) -> (b, a)
swap (x, y) = (y, x)

You can think of the two pairs as simply using a different format for storing the same data. It’s just like big endian vs. little endian.

You can combine an arbitrary number of types into a product by nesting pairs inside pairs, but there is an easier way: nested pairs are equivalent to tuples. It’s the consequence of the fact that different ways of nesting pairs are isomorphic. If you want to combine three types in a product, a, b, and c, in this order, you can do it in two ways:

((a, b), c)


(a, (b, c))

These types are different — you can’t pass one to a function that expects the other — but their elements are in one-to-one correspondence. There is a function that maps one to another:

alpha :: ((a, b), c) -> (a, (b, c))
alpha ((x, y), z) = (x, (y, z))

and this function is invertible:

alpha_inv :: (a, (b, c)) -> ((a, b), c)
alpha_inv  (x, (y, z)) = ((x, y), z)

so it’s an isomorphism. These are just different ways of repackaging the same data.

You can interpret the creation of a product type as a binary operation on types. From that perspective, the above isomorphism looks very much like the associativity law we’ve seen in monoids:

(a * b) * c = a * (b * c)

Except that, in the monoid case, the two ways of composing products were equal, whereas here they are only equal “up to isomorphism.”

If we can live with isomorphisms, and don’t insist on strict equality, we can go even further and show that the unit type, (), is the unit of the product the same way 1 is the unit of multiplication. Indeed, the pairing of a value of some type a with a unit doesn’t add any information. The type:

(a, ())

is isomorphic to a. Here’s the isomorphism:

rho :: (a, ()) -> a
rho (x, ()) = x
rho_inv :: a -> (a, ())
rho_inv x = (x, ())

These observations can be formalized by saying that Set (the category of sets) is a monoidal category. It’s a category that’s also a monoid, in the sense that you can multiply objects (here, take their cartesian product). I’ll talk more about monoidal categories, and give the full definition in the future.

There is a more general way of defining product types in Haskell — especially, as we’ll see soon, when they are combined with sum types. It uses named constructors with multiple arguments. A pair, for instance, can be defined alternatively as:

data Pair a b = P a b

Here, Pair a b is the name of the type paremeterized by two other types, a and b; and P is the name of the data constructor. You define a pair type by passing two types to the Pair type constructor. You construct a pair value by passing two values of appropriate types to the constructor P. For instance, let’s define a value stmt as a pair of String and Bool:

stmt :: Pair String Bool
stmt = P "This statements is" False

The first line is the type declaration. It uses the type constructor Pair, with String and Bool replacing a and the b in the generic definition of Pair. The second line defines the actual value by passing a concrete string and a concrete Boolean to the data constructor P. Type constructors are used to construct types; data constructors, to construct values.

Since the name spaces for type and data constructors are separate in Haskell, you will often see the same name used for both, as in:

data Pair a b = Pair a b

And if you squint hard enough, you may even view the built-in pair type as a variation on this kind of declaration, where the name Pair is replaced with the binary operator (,). In fact you can use (,) just like any other named constructor and create pairs using prefix notation:

stmt = (,) "This statement is" False

Similarly, you can use (,,) to create triples, and so on.

Instead of using generic pairs or tuples, you can also define specific named product types, as in:

data Stmt = Stmt String Bool

which is just a product of String and Bool, but it’s given its own name and constructor. The advantage of this style of declaration is that you may define many types that have the same content but different meaning and functionality, and which cannot be substituted for each other.

Programming with tuples and multi-argument constructors can get messy and error prone — keeping track of which component represents what. It’s often preferable to give names to components. A product type with named fields is called a record in Haskell, and a struct in C.


Let’s have a look at a simple example. We want to describe chemical elements by combining two strings, name and symbol; and an integer, the atomic number; into one data structure. We can use a tuple (String, String, Int) and remember which component represents what. We would extract components by pattern matching, as in this function that checks if the symbol of the element is the prefix of its name (as in He being the prefix of Helium):

startsWithSymbol :: (String, String, Int) -> Bool
startsWithSymbol (name, symbol, _) = isPrefixOf symbol name

This code is error prone, and is hard to read and maintain. It’s much better to define a record:

data Element = Element { name         :: String
                       , symbol       :: String
                       , atomicNumber :: Int }

The two representations are isomorphic, as witnessed by these two conversion functions, which are the inverse of each other:

tupleToElem :: (String, String, Int) -> Element
tupleToElem (n, s, a) = Element { name = n
                                , symbol = s
                                , atomicNumber = a }
elemToTuple :: Element -> (String, String, Int)
elemToTuple e = (name e, symbol e, atomicNumber e)

Notice that the names of record fields also serve as functions to access these fields. For instance, atomicNumber e retrieves the atomicNumber field from e. We use atomicNumber as a function of the type:

atomicNumber :: Element -> Int

With the record syntax for Element, our function startsWithSymbol becomes more readable:

startsWithSymbol :: Element -> Bool
startsWithSymbol e = isPrefixOf (symbol e) (name e)

We could even use the Haskell trick of turning the function isPrefixOf into an infix operator by surrounding it with backquotes, and make it read almost like a sentence:

startsWithSymbol e = symbol e `isPrefixOf` name e

The parentheses could be omitted in this case, because an infix operator has lower precedence than a function call.

Sum Types

Just as the product in the category of sets gives rise to product types, the coproduct gives rise to sum types. The canonical implementation of a sum type in Haskell is:

data Either a b = Left a | Right b

And like pairs, Eithers are commutative (up to isomorphism), can be nested, and the nesting order is irrelevant (up to isomorphism). So we can, for instance, define a sum equivalent of a triple:

data OneOfThree a b c = Sinistral a | Medial b | Dextral c

and so on.

It turns out that Set is also a (symmetric) monoidal category with respect to coproduct. The role of the binary operation is played by the disjoint sum, and the role of the unit element is played by the initial object. In terms of types, we have Either as the monoidal operator and Void, the uninhabited type, as its neutral element. You can think of Either as plus, and Void as zero. Indeed, adding Void to a sum type doesn’t change its content. For instance:

Either a Void

is isomorphic to a. That’s because there is no way to construct a Right version of this type — there isn’t a value of type Void. The only inhabitants of Either a Void are constructed using the Left constructors and they simply encapsulate a value of type a. So, symbolically, a + 0 = a.

Sum types are pretty common in Haskell, but their C++ equivalents, unions or variants, are much less common. There are several reasons for that.

First of all, the simplest sum types are just enumerations and are implemented using enum in C++. The equivalent of the Haskell sum type:

data Color = Red | Green | Blue

is the C++:

enum { Red, Green, Blue };

An even simpler sum type:

data Bool = True | False

is the primitive bool in C++.

Simple sum types that encode the presence or absence of a value are variously implemented in C++ using special tricks and “impossible” values, like empty strings, negative numbers, null pointers, etc. This kind of optionality, if deliberate, is expressed in Haskell using the Maybe type:

data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a

The Maybe type is a sum of two types. You can see this if you separate the two constructors into individual types. The first one would look like this:

data NothingType = Nothing

It’s an enumeration with one value called Nothing. In other words, it’s a singleton, which is equivalent to the unit type (). The second part:

data JustType a = Just a

is just an encapsulation of the type a. We could have encoded Maybe as:

data Maybe a = Either () a

More complex sum types are often faked in C++ using pointers. A pointer can be either null, or point to a value of specific type. For instance, a Haskell list type, which can be defined as a (recursive) sum type:

List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)

can be translated to C++ using the null pointer trick to implement the empty list:

template<class A> 
class List {
    Node<A> * _head;
    List() : _head(nullptr) {}  // Nil
    List(A a, List<A> l)        // Cons
      : _head(new Node<A>(a, l))

Notice that the two Haskell constructors Nil and Cons are translated into two overloaded List constructors with analogous arguments (none, for Nil; and a value and a list for Cons). The List class doesn’t need a tag to distinguish between the two components of the sum type. Instead it uses the special nullptr value for _head to encode Nil.

The main difference, though, between Haskell and C++ types is that Haskell data structures are immutable. If you create an object using one particular constructor, the object will forever remember which constructor was used and what arguments were passed to it. So a Maybe object that was created as Just "energy" will never turn into Nothing. Similarly, an empty list will forever be empty, and a list of three elements will always have the same three elements.

It’s this immutability that makes construction reversible. Given an object, you can always disassemble it down to parts that were used in its construction. This deconstruction is done with pattern matching and it reuses constructors as patterns. Constructor arguments, if any, are replaced with variables (or other patterns).

The List data type has two constructors, so the deconstruction of an arbitrary List uses two patterns corresponding to those constructors. One matches the empty Nil list, and the other a Cons-constructed list. For instance, here’s the definition of a simple function on Lists:

maybeTail :: List a -> Maybe (List a)
maybeTail Nil = Nothing
maybeTail (Cons _ t) = Just t

The first part of the definition of maybeTail uses the Nil constructor as pattern and returns Nothing. The second part uses the Cons constructor as pattern. It replaces the first constructor argument with a wildcard, because we are not interested in it. The second argument to Cons is bound to the variable t (I will call these things variables even though, strictly speaking, they never vary: once bound to an expression, a variable never changes). The return value is Just t. Now, depending on how your List was created, it will match one of the clauses. If it was created using Cons, the two arguments that were passed to it will be retrieved (and the first discarded).

Even more elaborate sum types are implemented in C++ using polymorphic class hierarchies. A family of classes with a common ancestor may be understood as one variant type, in which the vtable serves as a hidden tag. What in Haskell would be done by pattern matching on the constructor, and by calling specialized code, in C++ is accomplished by dispatching a call to a virtual function based on the vtable pointer.

You will rarely see union used as a sum type in C++ because of severe limitations on what can go into a union. You can’t even put a std::string into a union because it has a copy constructor.

Algebra of Types

Taken separately, product and sum types can be used to define a variety of useful data structures, but the real strength comes from combining the two. Once again we are invoking the power of composition.

Let’s summarize what we’ve discovered so far. We’ve seen two commutative monoidal structures underlying the type system: We have the sum types with Void as the neutral element, and the product types with the unit type, (), as the neutral element. We’d like to think of them as analogous to addition and multiplication. In this analogy, Void would correspond to zero, and unit, (), to one.

Let’s see how far we can stretch this analogy. For instance, does multiplication by zero give zero? In other words, is a product type with one component being Void isomorphic to Void? For example, is it possible to create a pair of, say Int and Void?

To create a pair you need two values. Although you can easily come up with an integer, there is no value of type Void. Therefore, for any type a, the type (a, Void) is uninhabited — has no values — and is therefore equivalent to Void. In other words, a*0 = 0.

Another thing that links addition and multiplication is the distributive property:

a * (b + c) = a * b + a * c

Does it also hold for product and sum types? Yes, it does — up to isomorphisms, as usual. The left hand side corresponds to the type:

(a, Either b c)

and the right hand side corresponds to the type:

Either (a, b) (a, c)

Here’s the function that converts them one way:

prodToSum :: (a, Either b c) -> Either (a, b) (a, c)
prodToSum (x, e) = 
    case e of
      Left  y -> Left  (x, y)
      Right z -> Right (x, z)

and here’s one that goes the other way:

sumToProd :: Either (a, b) (a, c) -> (a, Either b c)
sumToProd e = 
    case e of
      Left  (x, y) -> (x, Left  y)
      Right (x, z) -> (x, Right z)

The case of statement is used for pattern matching inside functions. Each pattern is followed by an arrow and the expression to be evaluated when the pattern matches. For instance, if you call prodToSum with the value:

prod1 :: (Int, Either String Float)
prod1 = (2, Left "Hi!")

the e in case e of will be equal to Left "Hi!". It will match the pattern Left y, substituting "Hi!" for y. Since the x has already been matched to 2, the result of the case of clause, and the whole function, will be Left (2, "Hi!"), as expected.

I’m not going to prove that these two functions are the inverse of each other, but if you think about it, they must be! They are just trivially re-packing the contents of the two data structures. It’s the same data, only different format.

Mathematicians have a name for such two intertwined monoids: it’s called a semiring. It’s not a full ring, because we can’t define subtraction of types. That’s why a semiring is sometimes called a rig, which is a pun on “ring without an n” (negative). But barring that, we can get a lot of mileage from translating statements about, say, natural numbers, which form a rig, to statements about types. Here’s a translation table with some entries of interest:

Numbers Types
0 Void
1 ()
a + b Either a b = Left a | Right b
a * b (a, b) or Pair a b = Pair a b
2 = 1 + 1 data Bool = True | False
1 + a data Maybe = Nothing | Just a

The list type is quite interesting, because it’s defined as a solution to an equation. The type we are defining appears on both sides of the equation:

List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)

If we do our usual substitutions, and also replace List a with x, we get the equation:

x = 1 + a * x

We can’t solve it using traditional algebraic methods because we can’t subtract or divide types. But we can try a series of substitutions, where we keep replacing x on the right hand side with (1 + a*x), and use the distributive property. This leads to the following series:

x = 1 + a*x
x = 1 + a*(1 + a*x) = 1 + a + a*a*x
x = 1 + a + a*a*(1 + a*x) = 1 + a + a*a + a*a*a*x
x = 1 + a + a*a + a*a*a + a*a*a*a...

We end up with an infinite sum of products (tuples), which can be interpreted as: A list is either empty, 1; or a singleton, a; or a pair, a*a; or a triple, a*a*a; etc… Well, that’s exactly what a list is — a string of as!

There’s much more to lists than that, and we’ll come back to them and other recursive data structures after we learn about functors and fixed points.

Solving equations with symbolic variables — that’s algebra! It’s what gives these types their name: algebraic data types.

Finally, I should mention one very important interpretation of the algebra of types. Notice that a product of two types a and b must contain both a value of type a and a value of type b, which means both types must be inhabited. A sum of two types, on the other hand, contains either a value of type a or a value of type b, so it’s enough if one of them is inhabited. Logical and and or also form a semiring, and it too can be mapped into type theory:

Logic Types
false Void
true ()
a || b Either a b = Left a | Right b
a && b (a, b)

This analogy goes deeper, and is the basis of the Curry-Howard isomorphism between logic and type theory. We’ll come back to it when we talk about function types.


  1. Show the isomorphism between Maybe a and Either () a.
  2. Here’s a sum type defined in Haskell:
    data Shape = Circle Float
               | Rect Float Float

    When we want to define a function like area that acts on a Shape, we do it by pattern matching on the two constructors:

    area :: Shape -> Float
    area (Circle r) = pi * r * r
    area (Rect d h) = d * h

    Implement Shape in C++ or Java as an interface and create two classes: Circle and Rect. Implement area as a virtual function.

  3. Continuing with the previous example: We can easily add a new function circ that calculates the circumference of a Shape. We can do it without touching the definition of Shape:
    circ :: Shape -> Float
    circ (Circle r) = 2.0 * pi * r
    circ (Rect d h) = 2.0 * (d + h)

    Add circ to your C++ or Java implementation. What parts of the original code did you have to touch?

  4. Continuing further: Add a new shape, Square, to Shape and make all the necessary updates. What code did you have to touch in Haskell vs. C++ or Java? (Even if you’re not a Haskell programmer, the modifications should be pretty obvious.)
  5. Show that a + a = 2 * a holds for types (up to isomorphism). Remember that 2 corresponds to Bool, according to our translation table.

Next: Functors.


Thanks go to Gershom Bazerman for reviewing this post and helpful comments.

Categories for Programmers. In the previous installment we discussed how to add logging to pure functions. See the Table of Contents.

Follow the Arrows

The Ancient Greek playwright Euripides once said: “Every man is like the company he is wont to keep.” We are defined by our relationships. Nowhere is this more true than in category theory. If we want to single out a particular object in a category, we can only do this by describing its pattern of relationships with other objects (and itself). These relationships are defined by morphisms.

There is a common construction in category theory called the universal construction for defining objects in terms of their relationships. One way of doing this is to pick a pattern, a particular shape constructed from objects and morphisms, and look for all its occurrences in the category. If it’s a common enough pattern, and the category is large, chances are you’ll have lots and lots of hits. The trick is to establish some kind of ranking among those hits, and pick what could be considered the best fit.

This process is reminiscent of the way we do web searches. A query is like a pattern. A very general query will give you large recall: lots of hits. Some may be relevant, others not. To eliminate irrelevant hits, you refine your query. That increases its precision. Finally, the search engine will rank the hits and, hopefully, the one result that you’re interested in will be at the top of the list.

Initial Object

The simplest shape is a single object. Obviously, there are as many instances of this shape as there are objects in a given category. That’s a lot to choose from. We need to establish some kind of ranking and try to find the object that tops this hierarchy. The only means at our disposal are morphisms. If you think of morphisms as arrows, then it’s possible that there is an overall net flow of arrows from one end of the category to another. This is true in ordered categories, for instance in partial orders. We could generalize that notion of object precedence by saying that object a is “more initial” than object b if there is an arrow (a morphism) going from a to b. We would then define the initial object as one that has arrows going to all other objects. Obviously there is no guarantee that such an object exists, and that’s okay. A bigger problem is that there may be too many such objects: The recall is good, but precision is lacking. The solution is to take a hint from ordered categories — they allow at most one arrow between any two objects: there is only one way of being less-than or equal-to another object. Which leads us to this definition of the initial object:

The initial object is the object that has one and only one morphism going to any object in the category.


However, even that doesn’t guarantee the uniqueness of the initial object (if one exists). But it guarantees the next best thing: uniqueness up to isomorphism. Isomorphisms are very important in category theory, so I’ll talk about them shortly. For now, let’s just agree that uniqueness up to isomorphism justifies the use of “the” in the definition of the initial object.

Here are some examples: The initial object in a partially ordered set (often called a poset) is its least element. Some posets don’t have an initial object — like the set of all integers, positive and negative, with less-than-or-equal relation for morphisms.

In the category of sets and functions, the initial object is the empty set. Remember, an empty set corresponds to the Haskell type Void (there is no corresponding type in C++) and the unique polymorphic function from Void to any other type is called absurd:

absurd :: Void -> a

It’s this family of morphisms that makes Void the initial object in the category of types.

Terminal Object

Let’s continue with the single-object pattern, but let’s change the way we rank the objects. We’ll say that object a is “more terminal” than object b if there is a morphism going from b to a (notice the reversal of direction). We’ll be looking for an object that’s more terminal than any other object in the category. Again, we will insist on uniqueness:

The terminal object is the object with one and only one morphism coming to it from any object in the category.


And again, the terminal object is unique, up to isomorphism, which I will show shortly. But first let’s look at some examples. In a poset, the terminal object, if it exists, is the biggest object. In the category of sets, the terminal object is a singleton. We’ve already talked about singletons — they correspond to the void type in C++ and the unit type () in Haskell. It’s a type that has only one value — implicit in C++ and explicit in Haskell, denoted by (). We’ve also established that there is one and only one pure function from any type to the unit type:

unit :: a -> ()
unit _ = ()

so all the conditions for the terminal object are satisfied.

Notice that in this example the uniqueness condition is crucial, because there are other sets (actually, all of them, except for the empty set) that have incoming morphisms from every set. For instance, there is a Boolean-valued function (a predicate) defined for every type:

yes :: a -> Bool
yes _ = True

But Bool is not a terminal object. There is at least one more Bool-valued function from every type:

no :: a -> Bool
no _ = False

Insisting on uniqueness gives us just the right precision to narrow down the definition of the terminal object to just one type.


You can’t help but to notice the symmetry between the way we defined the initial object and the terminal object. The only difference between the two was the direction of morphisms. It turns out that for any category C we can define the opposite category Cop just by reversing all the arrows. The opposite category automatically satisfies all the requirements of a category, as long as we simultaneously redefine composition. If original morphisms f::a->b and g::b->c composed to h::a->c with h=g∘f, then the reversed morphisms fop::b->a and gop::c->b will compose to hop::c->a with hop=fop∘gop. And reversing the identity arrows is a (pun alert!) no-op.

Duality is a very important property of categories because it doubles the productivity of every mathematician working in category theory. For every construction you come up with, there is its opposite; and for every theorem you prove, you get one for free. The constructions in the opposite category are often prefixed with “co”, so you have products and coproducts, monads and comonads, cones and cocones, limits and colimits, and so on. There are no cocomonads though, because reversing the arrows twice gets us back to the original state.

It follows then that a terminal object is the initial object in the opposite category.


As programmers, we are well aware that defining equality is a nontrivial task. What does it mean for two objects to be equal? Do they have to occupy the same location in memory (pointer equality)? Or is it enough that the values of all their components are equal? Are two complex numbers equal if one is expressed as the real and imaginary part, and the other as modulus and angle? You’d think that mathematicians would have figured out the meaning of equality, but they haven’t. They have the same problem of multiple competing definitions for equality. There is the propositional equality, intensional equality, extensional equality, and equality as a path in homotopy type theory. And then there are the weaker notions of isomorphism, and even weaker of equivalence.

The intuition is that isomorphic objects look the same — they have the same shape. It means that every part of one object corresponds to some part of another object in a one-to-one mapping. As far as our instruments can tell, the two objects are a perfect copy of each other. Mathematically it means that there is a mapping from object a to object b, and there is a mapping from object b back to object a, and they are the inverse of each other. In category theory we replace mappings with morphisms. An isomorphism is an invertible morphism; or a pair of morphisms, one being the inverse of the other.

We understand the inverse in terms of composition and identity: Morphism g is the inverse of morphism f if their composition is the identity morphism. These are actually two equations because there are two ways of composing two morphisms:

f . g = id
g . f = id

When I said that the initial (terminal) object was unique up to isomorphism, I meant that any two initial (terminal) objects are isomorphic. That’s actually easy to see. Let’s suppose that we have two initial objects i1 and i2. Since i1 is initial, there is a unique morphism f from i1 to i2. By the same token, since i2 is initial, there is a unique morphism g from i2 to i1. What’s the composition of these two morphisms?

All morphisms in this diagram are unique

All morphisms in this diagram are unique

The composition g∘f must be a morphism from i1 to i1. But i1 is initial so there can only be one morphism going from i1 to i1. Since we are in a category, we know that there is an identity morphism from i1 to i1, and since there is room for only one, that must be it. Therefore g∘f is equal to identity. Similarly, f∘g must be equal to identity, because there can be only one morphism from i2 back to i2. This proves that f and g must be the inverse of each other. Therefore any two initial objects are isomorphic.

Notice that in this proof we used the uniqueness of the morphism from the initial object to itself. Without that we couldn’t prove the “up to isomorphism” part. But why do we need the uniqueness of f and g? Because not only is the initial object unique up to isomorphism, it is unique up to unique isomorphism. In principle, there could be more than one isomorphism between two objects, but that’s not the case here. This “uniqueness up to unique isomorphism” is the important property of all universal constructions.


The next universal construction is that of a product. We know what a cartesian product of two sets is: it’s a set of pairs. But what’s the pattern that connects the product set with its constituent sets? If we can figure that out, we’ll be able to generalize it to other categories.

All we can say is that there are two functions, the projections, from the product to each of the constituents. In Haskell, these two functions are called fst and snd and they pick, respectively, the first and the second component of a pair:

fst :: (a, b) -> a
fst (x, y) = x
snd :: (a, b) -> b
snd (x, y) = y

Here, the functions are defined by pattern matching their arguments: the pattern that matches any pair is (x, y), and it extracts its components into variables x and y.

These definitions can be simplified even further with the use of wildcards:

fst (x, _) = x
snd (_, y) = y

In C++, we would use template functions, for instance:

template<class A, class B>
A fst(pair<A, B> const & p) {
    return p.first;

Equipped with this seemingly very limited knowledge, let’s try to define a pattern of objects and morphisms in the category of sets that will lead us to the construction of a product of two sets, a and b. This pattern consists of an object c and two morphisms p and q connecting it to a and b, respectively:

p :: c -> a
q :: c -> b


All cs that fit this pattern will be considered candidates for the product. There may be lots of them.


For instance, let’s pick, as our constituents, two Haskell types, Int and Bool, and get a sampling of candidates for their product.

Here’s one: Int. Can Int be considered a candidate for the product of Int and Bool? Yes, it can — and here are its projections:

p :: Int -> Int
p x = x

q :: Int -> Bool
q _ = True

That’s pretty lame, but it matches the criteria.

Here’s another one: (Int, Int, Bool). It’s a tuple of three elements, or a triple. Here are two morphisms that make it a legitimate candidate (we are using pattern matching on triples):

p :: (Int, Int, Bool) -> Int
p (x, _, _) = x

q :: (Int, Int, Bool) -> Bool
q (_, _, b) = b

You may have noticed that while our first candidate was too small — it only covered the Int dimension of the product; the second was too big — it spuriously duplicated the Int dimension.

But we haven’t explored yet the other part of the universal construction: the ranking. We want to be able to compare two instances of our pattern. We want to compare one candidate object c and its two projections p and q with another candidate object c’ and its two projections p’ and q’. We would like to say that c is “better” than c’ if there is a morphism m from c’ to c — but that’s too weak. We also want its projections to be “better,” or “more universal,” than the projections of c’. What it means is that the projections p’ and q’ can be reconstructed from p and q using m:

p’ = p . m
q’ = q . m


Another way of looking at these equation is that m factorizes p’ and q’. Just pretend that these equations are in natural numbers, and the dot is multiplication: m is a common factor shared by p’ and q’.

Just to build some intuitions, let me show you that the pair (Int, Bool) with the two canonical projections, fst and snd is indeed better than the two candidates I presented before.

Not a product

The mapping m for the first candidate is:

m :: Int -> (Int, Bool)
m x = (x, True)

Indeed, the two projections, p and q can be reconstructed as:

p x = fst (m x) = x
q x = snd (m x) = True

The m for the second example is similarly uniquely determined:

m (x, _, b) = (x, b)

We were able to show that (Int, Bool) is better than either of the two candidates. Let’s see why the opposite is not true. Could we find some m' that would help us reconstruct fst and snd from p and q?

fst = p . m’
snd = q . m’

In our first example, q always returned True and we know that there are pairs whose second component is False. We can’t reconstruct snd from q.

The second example is different: we retain enough information after running either p or q, but there is more than one way to factorize fst and snd. Because both p and q ignore the second component of the triple, our m’ can put anything in it. We can have:

m’ (x, b) = (x, x, b)


m’ (x, b) = (x, 42, b)

and so on.

Putting it all together, given any type c with two projections p and q, there is a unique m from c to the cartesian product (a, b) that factorizes them. In fact, it just combines p and q into a pair.

m :: c -> (a, b)
m x = (p x, q x)

That makes the cartesian product (a, b) our best match, which means that this universal construction works in the category of sets. It picks the product of any two sets.

Now let’s forget about sets and define a product of two objects in any category using the same universal construction. Such product doesn’t always exist, but when it does, it is unique up to a unique isomorphism.

A product of two objects a and b is the object c equipped with two projections such that for any other object c’ equipped with two projections there is a unique morphism m from c’ to c that factorizes those projections.

A (higher order) function that produces the factorizing function m from two candidates is sometimes called the factorizer. In our case, it would be the function:

factorizer :: (c -> a) -> (c -> b) -> (c -> (a, b))
factorizer p q = \x -> (p x, q x)


Like every construction in category theory, the product has a dual, which is called the coproduct. When we reverse the arrows in the product pattern, we end up with an object c equipped with two injections, i and j: morphisms from a and b to c.

i :: a -> c
j :: b -> c


The ranking is also inverted: object c is “better” than object c’ that is equipped with the injections i’ and j’ if there is a morphism m from c to c’ that factorizes the injections:

i' = m . i
j' = m . j


The “best” such object, one with a unique morphism connecting it to any other pattern, is called a coproduct and, if it exists, is unique up to unique isomorphism.

A coproduct of two objects a and b is the object c equipped with two injections such that for any other object c’ equipped with two injections there is a unique morphism m from c to c’ that factorizes those injections.

In the category of sets, the coproduct is the disjoint union of two sets. An element of the disjoint union of a and b is either an element of a or an element of b. If the two sets overlap, the disjoint union contains two copies of the common part. You can think of an element of a disjoint union as being tagged with an identifier that specifies its origin.

For a programmer, it’s easier to understand a coproduct in terms of types: it’s a tagged union of two types. C++ supports unions, but they are not tagged. It means that in your program you have to somehow keep track which member of the union is valid. To create a tagged union, you have to define a tag — an enumeration — and combine it with the union. For instance, a tagged union of an int and a char const * could be implemented as:

struct Contact {
    enum { isPhone, isEmail } tag;
    union { int phoneNum; char const * emailAddr; };

The two injections can either be implemented as constructors or as functions. For instance, here’s the first injection as a function PhoneNum:

Contact PhoneNum(int n) {
    Contact c;
    c.tag = isPhone;
    c.phoneNum = n;
    return c;

It injects an integer into Contact.

A tagged union is also called a variant, and there is a very general implementation of a variant in the boost library, boost::variant.

In Haskell, you can combine any data types into a tagged union by separating data constructors with a vertical bar. The Contact example translates into the declaration:

data Contact = PhoneNum Int | EmailAddr String

Here, PhoneNum and EmailAddr serve both as constructors (injections), and as tags for pattern matching (more about this later). For instance, this is how you would construct a contact using a phone number:

helpdesk :: Contact;
helpdesk = PhoneNum 2222222

Unlike the canonical implementation of the product that is built into Haskell as the primitive pair, the canonical implementation of the coproduct is a data type called Either, which is defined in the standard Prelude as:

Either a b = Left a | Right b

It is parameterized by two types, a and b and has two constructors: Left that takes a value of type a, and Right that takes a value of type b.

Just as we’ve defined the factorizer for a product, we can define one for the coproduct. Given a candidate type c and two candidate injections i and j, the factorizer for Either produces the factoring function:

factorizer :: (a -> c) -> (b -> c) -> Either a b -> c
factorizer i j (Left a)  = i a
factorizer i j (Right b) = j b


We’ve seen two set of dual definitions: The definition of a terminal object can be obtained from the definition of the initial object by reversing the direction of arrows; in a similar way, the definition of the coproduct can be obtained from that of the product. Yet in the category of sets the initial object is very different from the final object, and coproduct is very different from product. We’ll see later that product behaves like multiplication, with the terminal object playing the role of one; whereas coproduct behaves more like the sum, with the initial object playing the role of zero. In particular, for finite sets, the size of the product is the product of the sizes of individual sets, and the size of the coproduct is the sum of the sizes.

This shows that the category of sets is not symmetric with respect to the inversion of arrows.

Notice that while the empty set has a unique morphism to any set (the absurd function), it has no morphisms coming back. The singleton set has a unique morphism coming to it from any set, but it also has outgoing morphisms to every set (except for the empty one). As we’ve seen before, these outgoing morphisms from the terminal object play a very important role of picking elements of other sets (the empty set has no elements, so there’s nothing to pick).

It’s the relationship of the singleton set to the product that sets it apart from the coproduct. Consider using the singleton set, represented by the unit type (), as yet another — vastly inferior — candidate for the product pattern. Equip it with two projections p and q: functions from the singleton to each of the constituent sets. Each selects a concrete element from either set. Because the product is universal, there is also a (unique) morphism m from our candidate, the singleton, to the product. This morphism selects an element from the product set — it selects a concrete pair. It also factorizes the two projections:

p = fst . m
q = snd . m

When acting on the singleton value (), the only element of the singleton set, these two equations become:

p () = fst (m ())
q () = snd (m ())

Since m () is the element of the product picked by m, these equations tell us that the element picked by p from the first set, p (), is the first component of the pair picked by m. Similarly, q () is equal to the second component. This is in total agreement with our understanding that elements of the product are pairs of elements from the constituent sets.

There is no such simple interpretation of the coproduct. We could try the singleton set as a candidate for a coproduct, in an attempt to extract the elements from it, but there we would have two injections going into it rather than two projections coming out of it. They’d tell us nothing about their sources (in fact, we’ve seen that they ignore the input parameter). Neither would the unique morphism from the coproduct to our singleton. The category of sets just looks very different when seen from the direction of the initial object than it does when seen from the terminal end.

This is not an intrinsic property of sets, it’s a property of functions, which we use as morphisms in Set. Functions are, in general, asymmetric. Let me explain.

A function must be defined for every element of its domain set (in programming, we call it a total function), but it doesn’t have to cover the whole codomain. We’ve seen some extreme cases of it: functions from a singleton set — functions that select just a single element in the codomain. (Actually, functions from an empty set are the real extremes.) When the size of the domain is much smaller than the size of the codomain, we often think of such functions as embedding the domain in the codomain. For instance, we can think of a function from a singleton set as embedding its single element in the codomain. I call them embedding functions, but mathematicians prefer to give a name to the opposite: functions that tightly fill their codomains are called surjective or onto.

The other source of asymmetry is that functions are allowed to map many elements of the domain set into one element of the codomain. They can collapse them. The extreme case are functions that map whole sets into a singleton. You’ve seen the polymorphic unit function that does just that. The collapsing can only be compounded by composition. A composition of two collapsing functions is even more collapsing than the individual functions. Mathematicians have a name for non-collapsing functions: they call them injective or one-to-one

Of course there are some functions that are neither embedding nor collapsing. They are called bijections and they are truly symmetric, because they are invertible. In the category of sets, an isomorphism is the same as a bijection.


  1. Show that the terminal object is unique up to unique isomorphism.
  2. What is a product of two objects in a poset? Hint: Use the universal construction.
  3. What is a coproduct of two objects in a poset?
  4. Implement the equivalent of Haskell Either as a generic type in your favorite language (other than Haskell).
  5. Show that Either is a “better” coproduct than int equipped with two injections:
    int i(int n) { return n; }
    int j(bool b) { return b? 0: 1; }

    Hint: Define a function

    int m(Either const & e);

    that factorizes i and j.

  6. Continuing the previous problem: How would you argue that int with the two injections i and j cannot be “better” than Either?
  7. Still continuing: What about these injections?
    int i(int n) { 
        if (n < 0) return n; 
        return n + 2;
    int j(bool b) { return b? 0: 1; }
  8. Come up with an inferior candidate for a coproduct of int and bool that cannot be better than Either because it allows multiple acceptable morphisms from it to Either.

Next: Simple Algebraic Data Types.


  1. The Catsters, Products and Coproducts video.


I’m grateful to Gershom Bazerman for reviewing this post before publication and for stimulating discussions.