Functorial Blog

A blog about functional programming

© Phil Freeman 2010-2017

Higher-order Abstract Syntax for Cartesian Closed Categories

by Phil Freeman on 2017/10/08

Higher-order Abstract Syntax

Higher-order abstract syntax allows us to create domain-specific languages which reuse the binding structure of the host language. For example, we can create an interface for a tiny typed lambda calculus by requiring term formers for applications and lambda abstractions:

class HOAS rep where
  app :: rep (a -> b) -> rep a -> rep b
  lam :: (rep a -> rep b) -> rep (a -> b)

Note that lambda abstractions are expressed using actual Haskell functions.

We can write lambda terms which work with any choice of representation:

s :: HOAS rep => rep ((p -> q -> r) -> (p -> q) -> p -> r)
s = lam $ \x -> lam $ \y -> lam $ \z -> (x `app` z) `app` (y `app` z)

and we can choose concrete representations in order to interpret these terms. For example, we could interpret terms as regular Haskell functions by choosing the representation of a type a to be the type a itself:

newtype I a = I { getI :: a }

instance HOAS I where
  app (I f) (I a) = I (f a)
  lam f = I (\a -> let I b = f (I a) in b)

More interestingly, we could create an interpretation which generates code. For example, using the pretty package for layout, we might generate JavaScript as follows:

import Text.PrettyPrint

newtype JS a = JS { codegen :: Int -> Doc }

instance HOAS JS where
  app (JS f) (JS a) = JS $ \gensym ->
    (f gensym <> text "(" <> a gensym <> text ")")
  lam f = JS $ \gensym ->
    let name = "v" ++ show gensym
        a = JS $ \_ -> text name
        b = f a
    in text "function(" <> text name <> text ") {"
       $$ nest 2 (text "return " <> codegen b (gensym + 1) <> text ";")
       $$ text "}"

We could generate JavaScript from our s combinator as follows:

ghci> codegen s 0
function(v0) {
  return function(v1) {
           return function(v2) {
                    return v0(v2)(v1(v2));

We could add more features to our DSL in order to create a more interesting language, but for now I'm just interested in embedding the lambda calculus.

Cartesian-Closed Categories

Now, here is a second way to think about lambda calculus. We can interpret the terms of the lambda calculus in any Cartesian-closed category. A category is Cartesian-closed if it has a terminal object, binary products and exponential objects.

The terminal object plays the role of the unit type, categorical products give us product types, and exponential objects give us function types. The adjunction between products and exponentials shows up as the curry and uncurry functions, which witness the bijection between hom sets.

We can define cartesian-closed categories in Haskell using a type class:

import Control.Category

-- | A Cartesian-closed category is a Category k, together with...
class Category k => CCC k where
  -- | a terminal object,
  data Unit k :: *
  -- | products
  data Tensor k :: * -> * -> *
  -- | exponentials,
  data Hom k :: * -> * -> *

  -- | currying and uncurring operations,
  curry :: forall a b c. k (Tensor k a b) c -> k a (Hom k b c)
  uncurry :: forall a b c. k a (Hom k b c) -> k (Tensor k a b) c

  -- | product introduction and elimination terms
  fork :: forall a c d. k a c -> k a d -> k a (Tensor k c d)
  exl :: forall a b. k (Tensor k a b) a
  exr :: forall a b. k (Tensor k a b) b

As an exercise, you might like to try defining an instance of this class for regular Haskell functions. We can define many other interesting instances, and Conal Elliott covers many other examples in his paper Compiling to Categories.


So, now that we have two ways to express lambda calculus in Haskell, we can ask if the two have equal expressive power. Certainly, any term expressible in the language of CCCs can be expressed using higher-order abstract syntax (since we can express each of the building blocks such as curry and uncurry). But can we go in the other direction, and turn terms expressed using higher-order abstract syntax into terms in the language of CCCs? In other words, can we provide an implementation of the HOAS combinators app and lam for some wrapper around a given CCC?

Suppose we have a Cartesian-closed category k. We can think of values of type k a b as like values in our DSL of "type" b in a "context" of type a.

We can write a function which lifts regular morphisms in our category to terms with this representation:

liftCCC :: forall k i a b. CCC k => k a b -> k i a -> k i b
liftCCC = (<<<)

It's also possible to write helper functions for working with products:

fst = liftCCC exl
snd = liftCCC exr

Let's see if we can define app and lam functions for this representation.

app is relatively simple to implement in terms of an "evaluation" morphism:

app :: forall k i a b. CCC k => k i (Hom k a b) -> k i a -> k i b
app f x = eval <<< fork f x

eval :: forall k a b. CCC k => k (Tensor k (Hom k a b) a) b
eval = uncurry id

Remember that Hom k a b acts like our function type, so this is a reasonable type for our application function. Note that the "context" type i is the same for both arguments.

lam is more interesting. Ideally, lam would invert app and have the type

forall k i a b. CCC k => (k i a -> k i b) -> k i (Hom k a b)

But if we try to implement this, we run into trouble.

How might we construct a value of type k i (Hom k a b)? One way would be to start from a term of type k (Tensor k i a) b, and use curry. But then the type of our "context" is no longer i, but Tensor k i a.

But let's continue this way anyway. We can think of this as pushing new information into our context, making our lambda-bound value of type a available in the context inside the body of the lambda.

So our new proposed type of lam will be

CCC k => (k (Tensor k i a) a -> k (Tensor k i a) b) -> k i (Hom k a b)

And now, this is simple to implement!

lam1 :: CCC k => (k (Tensor k i a) a -> k (Tensor k i a) b) -> k i (Hom k a b)
lam1 f = curry (f exr)

We can try out our DSL in the REPL. For example, here is the identity function:

ghci> :t lam1 (\x -> x)
CCC k => k i (Hom k a a)

This says that we have a "value" in our DSL of type Hom k a a in any context i.

But things go wrong when we try to define some more interesting terms:

ghci> :t lam1 (\x -> lam1 (\y -> x))

    Occurs check: cannot construct the infinite type: i ~ Tensor k i a

The problem here is that we are trying to use the value x inside the body of the inner lambda, where the context type is different. In the outer lambda, the context type is i, but in the inner lambda, it is Tensor k i a.

So we need some way of coercing the contexts of terms which are bound in outer lambdas.

Second Version: Explicit Coercions

Our second version of lam makes an additional "coercion" term available in the body of the lambda, which allows the caller to solve this problem by explicitly coercing terms which are bound outside the innermost lambda:

let lam2 :: CCC k
         => (k (Tensor k i a) i
            -> k (Tensor k i a) a
            -> k (Tensor k i a) b)
          -> k i (Hom k a b)
    lam2 f = curry (f exl exr)

Now we can express all lambda functions by coercing as necessary. For example:

ghci> :t lam2 (\_ x -> lam2 (\cast y -> x <<< cast))
CCC k => k i (Hom k b (Hom k a b))

But this is going to get cumbersome very quickly, and our DSL is sort of losing the appeal of a pure HOAS encoding.

Third Version: Deriving Coercions

Our coercion terms are going to get potentially quite complex. We can solve that problem by using a type class to express coercible terms:

class CCC k => Cast k x y where
  cast :: k x y

There will be two instances for this class. The first tries to strip off the outermost Tensor to look for the term we want underneath, and the second assumes that we've already found the term we're looking for:

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} (CCC k, Cast k b a, Tensor k b i ~ t) => Cast k t a where
  cast = cast . exl

instance CCC k => Cast k a a where
  cast = id

Thanks to @kcongor for showing me how to implement this without requiring IncoherentInstances!

Now we can go back to using lam1, and simply derive any potentially-complex coercion terms using cast! For example:

ghci> :t lam1 (\x -> lam1 (\y -> x <<< cast))
CCC k => k i (Hom k b (Hom k i1 b))

This is a definite improvement, but having to remember to cast terms is still annoying.

Final Version: Implicit Coercions

The final trick will be to give a more general type to any lambda-bound names, allowing them to be used in any subcontext.

So here is our final version of lam:

lam :: forall k i a b
     . CCC k
    => ((forall x. Cast k x (Tensor k i a) => k x a)
       -> k (Tensor k i a) b
    -> k i (Hom k a b)
lam f = curry (f exr_) where
  exr_ :: forall x. Cast k x (Tensor k i a) => k x a
  exr_ = exr <<< (cast :: k x (Tensor k i a))

Note that the type of the lambda-bound name is now

forall x. Cast k x (Tensor k i a) => k x a

This type is general enough that names can be used in any valid context!

And finally, we are able to express our combinator without any casts:

ghci> :t lam (\x -> lam (\y -> x))
CCC k => k i (Hom k b (Hom k i1 b))

In fact, we can express much more interesting terms. For example, the S combinator which we saw earlier:

ghci> :t lam (\x -> lam (\y -> lam (\z -> x `app` z `app` (y `app` z))))
CCC k => k i (Hom k (Hom k i1 (Hom k a1 b)) (Hom k (Hom k i1 a1) (Hom k i1 b)))

We can also work with products using the helpers we defined earlier. For example, here is a combinator which swaps the two components of a product:

ghci> :t lam (\x -> fork (snd x) (fst x))
CCC k => k i (Hom k (Tensor k a b) (Tensor k b a))


We've seen two presentations of lambda calculus in Haskell - on the one hand, using higher-order abstract syntax, and on the other, as the internal language of cartesian-closed categories. This construction shows that the two have equal expressive power, since we can express any term written in the HOAS encoding in the language of CCCs.

I hope that this will be a useful tool for building small DSLs in Haskell. Define a Cartesian-closed category, and get higher-order abstract syntax for free!

The code in this blog post is available here as a single Haskell module.