Subcategories & “Exofunctors” in Haskell

In my previous post I discussed the new constraint kinds extension to GHC, which provides a way to get type-indexed constraint families in GHC/Haskell. The extension provides some very useful expressivity. In this post I’m going to explain a possible use of the extension.

In Haskell the Functor class is misleading named as it actually captures the notion of an endofunctor, not functors in general. This post shows a use of constraint kinds to define a type class of exofunctors; that is, functors that are not necessarily endofunctors. I will explain what all of this means.

This example is just one from a draft note (edit July 2012: draft note subsumed by my TFP 2012 submission) explaining the use of constraint families, via the constraint kinds extension, for describing abstract structures from category theory that are parameterised by subcategories, including non-endofunctors, relative monads, and relative comonads.

I will try to concisely describe any relevant concepts from category theory, through the lens of functional programming, although I’ll elide some details.

The Hask category

The starting point of the idea is that programs in Haskell can be understood as providing definitions within some category, which we will call Hask. Categories comprise a collection of objects and a collection of morphisms which are mappings between objects. Categories come equipped with identity morphisms for every object and an associative composition operation for morphisms (see Wikipedia for a more complete, formal definition). For Hask, the objects are Haskell types, morphisms are functions in Haskell, identity morphisms are provided by the identity function, and composition is the usual function composition operation. For the purpose of this discussion we are not really concerned about the exact properties of Hask, just that Haskell acts as a kind of internal language for category theory, within some arbitrary category Hask (Dan Piponi provides some discussion on this topic).


Given some category C, a subcategory of C comprises a subcollection of the objects of C and a subcollection of the morphisms of C which map only between objects in the subcollection of this subcategory.

We can define for Hask a singleton subcategory for each type, which has just that one type as an object and functions from that type to itself as morphisms e.g. the Int-subcategory of Hask has one object, the Int type, and has functions of type Int → Int as morphisms. If this subcategory has all the morphisms Int → Int it is called a full subcategory. Is there a way to describe “larger” subcategories with more than just one object?

Via universal quantification we could define the trivial (“non-proper”) subcategory of Hask with objects of type a (implicitly universally quantified) and morphisms a -> b, which is just Hask again. Is there a way to describe “smaller” subcategories with fewer than all the objects, but more than one object? Yes. For this we use type classes.

Subcategories as type classes

The instances of a single parameter type class can be interpreted as describing the members of a set of types (or a relation on types for multi-parameter type classes). In a type signature, a universally quantified type variable constrained by a type class constraint represents a collection of types that are members of the class. E.g. for the Eq class, the following type signature describes a collection of types for which there are instances of Eq:

      Eq a => a

The members of Eq are a subcollection of the objects of Hask. Similarly, the type:

      (Eq a, Eq b) => (a -> b)

represents a subcollection of the morphisms of Hask mapping between objects in the subcollection of objects which are members of Eq. Thus, the Eq class defines an Eq-subcategory of Hask with the above subcollections of objects and morphisms.

Type classes can thus be interpreted as describing subcategories in Haskell. In a type signature, a type class constraint on a type variable thus specifies the subcategory which the type variable ranges over the objects of. We will go on to use the constraint kinds extension to define constraint-kinded type families, allowing structures from category theory to be parameterised by subcategories, encoded as type class constraints. We will use functors as the example in this post (more examples here).

Functors in Haskell

In category theory, a functor provides a mapping between categories e.g. F : C → D, mapping the objects and morphisms of C to objects and morphisms of D. Functors preserves identities and composition between the source and target category (see Wikipedia for more). An endofunctor is a functor where C and D are the same category.

The type constructor of a parametric data type in Haskell provides an object mapping from Hask to Hask e.g. given a data type data F a = ... the type constructor F maps objects (types) of Hask to other objects in Hask. A functor in Haskell is defined by a parametric data type, providing an object mapping, and an instance of the well-known Functor class for that data type:

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

which provides a mapping on morphisms, called fmap. There are many examples of functors in Haskell, for examples lists, where the fmap operation is the usual map operation, or the Maybe type. However, not all parametric data types are functors.

It is well-known that the Set data type in Haskell cannot be made an instance of the Functor class. The Data.Set library provides a map operation of type: :: (Ord a, Ord b) => (a -> b) -> Set a -> Set b

The Ord constraint on the element types is due to the implementation of Set using balanced binary trees, thus elements must be comparable. Whilst the data type is declared polymorphic, the constructors and transformers of Set allow only elements of a type that is an instance of Ord.

Using to define an instance of the Functor class for Set causes a type error:

instance Functor Set where
   fmap =


    No instances for (Ord b, Ord a)
      arising from a use of `'
    In the expression:
    In an equation for `fmap': fmap =
    In the instance declaration for `Functor Set'

The type error occurs as the signature for fmap has no constraints, or the empty (always true) constraint, whereas has Ord constraints. A mismatch occurs and a type error is produced.

The type error is however well justified from a mathematical perspective.

Haskell functors are not functors, but endofunctors

First of all, the name Functor is a misnomer; the class actually describes endofunctors, that is functors which have the same category for their source and target. If we understand type class constraints as specifying a subcategory, then the lack of constraints on fmap means that Functor describes endofunctors HaskHask.

The Set data type is not an endofunctor; it is a functor which maps from the Ord-subcategory of Hask to Hask. Thus Set :: OrdHask. The class constraints on the element types in declare the subcategory of Set functor to which the morphisms belong.

Type class of exofunctors

Can we define a type class which captures functors that are not necessarily endofunctors, but may have distinct source and target categories? Yes, using an associated type family of kind Constraint.

The following ExoFunctor type class describes a functor from a subcategory of Hask to Hask:

{-# LANGUAGE ConstraintKinds #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeFamilies #-}

class ExoFunctor f where
   type SubCat f x :: Constraint
   fmap :: (SubCat f a, SubCat f b) => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

The SubCat family defines the source subcategory for the functor, which depends on f. The target subcategory is just Hask, since f a and f b do not have any constraints.

We can now define the following instance for Set:

instance ExoFunctor Set where
   type SubCat Set x = Ord x
   fmap =

Endofunctors can also be made an instance of ExoFunctor using the empty constraint e.g.:

instance ExoFunctor [] where
    type SubCat [] a = ()
    fmap = map

(Aside: one might be wondering whether we should also have a way to restrict the target subcategory to something other than Hask here. By covariance we can always “cast” a functor C → D, where D is a subcategory of some other category E, to C → E without any problems. Thus, there is nothing to be gained from restricting the target to a subcategory, as it can always be reinterpreted as Hask.)

Conclusion (implementational restrictions = subcategories)

Subcategory constraints are needed when a data type is restricted in its polymorphism by its operations, usually because of some hidden implementational details that have permeated to the surface. These implementational details have until now been painful for Haskell programmers, and have threatened abstractions such as functors, monads, and comonads. Categorically, these implementational restrictions can be formulated succinctly with subcategories, for which there are corresponding structures of non-endofunctors, relative monads, and relative comonads. Until now there has been no succinct way to describe such structures in Haskell.

Using constraint kinds we can define associated type families, of kind Constraint, which allow abstract categorical structures, described via their operations as a type class, to be parameterised by subcategories on a per-instance basis. We can thus define a class of exofunctors, i.e. functors that are not necessarily endofunctors, which we showed here. The other related structures which are difficult to describe in Haskell without constraint kinds: relative monads and relative comonads, are discussed further in a draft note (edit July 2012: draft note subsumed by my TFP 2012 submission). The note includes examples of a Set monad and an unboxed array comonad, both of which expose their implementational restrictions as type class constraints which can be described as subcategory constraints.
Any feedback on this post or the draft note is greatly appreciated. Thanks.


10 thoughts on “Subcategories & “Exofunctors” in Haskell

  1. Doe this mean that in some language Hask could be realized as a type class?
    Something like

    class Hask a where

    Of course it’d be a lot bigger and broken up into very basic classes.
    This would allow for alternate classes instead of merely subcategories of Hask.
    Who knows maybe even uniqueness types could be implemented this way.

  2. Hi Steven, I’m not quite sure if I follow exactly what you are saying.
    Following the ideas in the article, Hask can be described:

    class Hask a
    instance Hask a

    I’m not sure if I follow what your intention with “y” is. Categories can be encoded “internally” in Haskell with something like:

    class Category c where
    id :: c a a
    comp :: c x y -> c y z -> c x z

    which might be something along the lines of what you are thinking.

    Using this internal representation of categories, functors could be defined as:

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

    Is this roughly what you had in mind?

  3. On page 4 of the paper (bottom) you give a strange type to the fst function: fst :: forall a b . a -> (a,b). This cannot work. Also the Hask(x, (x,y)) should probably be Hask((x,y), x).

    1. Gabor: thanks for spotting the mistake. I somehow flipped the type! I have fixed the online version.

      Apologies to Planet Haskell – apparently when I edit an old post it appears again on the Planet Haskell feed (even though the date of this post is in the past).

  4. Note: instance ExoFunctor Set where type SubCat Set x = Ord x can only pass the laws if you presume a lot about Ord, (well actually, even just Eq), that isn’t satisfied for many instances:

    Notably Eq lacks a claim that x == y entails f x = f y as neither Eq nor Ord claims to be structural.

    Sadly, even reflexivity fails in practice. 😉

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    this weblog, and I used to pay a visit this blog every day.

  6. Hello, nice blog post! I was looking for something like this when google searched up your blog post.

    I think there is something to be gained from being able to restrict the image subcategory.

    Suppose I have a map f:a -> b and a map g:b -> c, and moreover, there are canonical injections of everything into some d. Of course I can get maps f’:a->d and g’: b->d by composing f and g with the injections. However, something is lost in this translation: the maps f and g naturally compose, but f’ and g’ do not: they don’t `typecheck’.

    For example, if C were some subcategory of Hask, and f: C->C were an endofunctor of C, it is not clear how one would compose f with itself if all we remembered was the map f’: C -> Hask.

    (This is silly and obvious, but I would like to point it out because I needed to compose my functors, so I disagreed with the statement that keeping track of the image was unneeded).

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