Type classes: exploring the design space

Procedings of the Simon Peyton Jones, Mark Jones, Erik Meijer. Haskell Workshop 1997.

[A4 ps (gzipped)]

Abstract

When type classes were first introduced in Haskell they were regarded as a fairly experimental language feature, and therefore warranted a fairly conservative design. Since that time, practical experience has convinced many programmers of the benefits and convenience of type classes. However, on occasion, these same programmers have discovered examples where seemingly natural applications for type class overloading are prevented by the restrictions imposed by the Haskell design.

It is possible to extend the type class mechanism of Haskell in various ways to overcome these limitations, but such proposals must be designed with great care. For example, several different extensions have been implemented in Gofer. Some of these, particularly the support for multi-parameter classes, have proved to be very useful, but interactions between other aspects of the design have resulted in a type system that is both unsound and undecidable. Another illustration is the introduction of constructor classes in Haskell 1.3, which came without the proper generalization of the notion of a context. As a consequence, certain quite reasonable programs are not typable.

In this paper we review the rationale behind the design of Haskell's class system, we identify some of the weaknesses in the current situation, and we explain the choices that we face in attempting to remove them.