Traversable: A Remix

May 19, 2017

Traversable is a fun type class. It lies at a crossroad, where many basic Haskell concepts meet, and it can be presented in multiple ways that provide complementary intuitions. In this post, Traversable will be described from a slightly unusual point of view, or at least one that is not put into foreground all that often. We will suspend for a moment the picture of walking across a container while using an effectful function, and instead start by considering what can be done with effectful functions.

Weird fishes

Let’s begin with a familiar sight:

There are quite a few overlapping ways of talking about functions with such a type. If F is a Functor, we can say the function produces a functorial context; if it is an Applicative, we (also) say it produces an effect; and if it is a Monad we (also) call it a Kleisli arrow. Kleisli arrows are the functions we use with (>>=). Kleisli arrows for a specific Monad form a category, with return as identity and the fish operator, (<=<), as composition. If we pick join as the fundamental Monad operation, (<=<) can be defined in terms of it as:

The category laws, then, become an alternative presentation of the monad laws:

All of that is very well-known. Something less often noted, though, is that there is an interesting category for a -> F b functions even if F is not a Monad. Getting to it is amusingly easy: we just have to take the Kleisli category operators and erase the monad-specific parts from their definitions. In the case of (<=<), that means removing the join (and, for type bookkeeping purposes, slipping in a Compose in its place):

While (<=<) creates two monadic layers and merges them, (<%<) creates two functorial layers and leaves both in place. Note that doing away with join means the Functors introduced by the functions being composed can differ, and so the category we are setting up has all functions that fit Functor f => a -> f b as arrows. That is unlike what we have with (<=<) and the corresponding Kleisli categories, which only concern a single specific monad.

As for return, not relying on Monad means we need a different identity. Given the freedom to pick any Functor mentioned just above, it makes perfect sense to replace bringing a value into a Monad in a boring way by bringing a value into the boring Functor par excellence, Identity:

With (<%<) as composition and Identity as identity, we can state the following category laws:

Why didn’t I write them as equalities? Once the definition of (<%<) is substituted, it becomes clear that they do not hold literally as equalities: the left hand sides of the identity laws will have a stray Identity, and the uses of Compose on either side of the associativity law will be associated differently. Since Identity and Compose are essentially bookkeeping boilerplate, however, it would be entirely reasonable to ignore such differences. If we do that, it becomes clear that the laws do hold. All in all, we have a category, even though we can’t go all the way and shape it into a Category instance, not only due to the trivialities we chose to overlook, but also because of how each a -> F b function introduces a functorial layer F in a way that is not reflected in the target object b.

The first thing to do once after figuring out we have a category in our hands is looking for functors involving it.1 One of the simplest paths towards one is considering a way to, given some Functor T, change the source and target objects in an a -> F b function to T a and T b (that is precisely what fmap does with regular functions). This would give an endofunctor, whose arrow mapping would have a signature shaped like this:

This signature shape, however, should ring a bell:

If traverse were the arrow mapping of our endofunctor, the relevant functor laws would be:

Substituting the definition of (<%<) reveals these are the identity and composition laws of Traversable:

There it is: a Traversable instance is an endofunctor for a category made of arbitrary context-producing functions.2

Is it really, though? You may have noticed I have glossed over something quite glaring: if (<%<) only involved Functor constraints, where does the Applicative in traverse comes from?

Arpeggi

Let’s pretend we have just invented the Traversable class by building it around the aforementioned endofunctor. At this point, there is no reason for using anything more restrictive than Functor in the signature of its arrow mapping:

The natural thing to do now is trying to write traverse for various choices of t. Let’s try it for one of the simplest Functors around: the pair functor, (,) e – values with something extra attached:

Simple enough: apply the function to the contained value, and then shift the extra stuff into the functorial context with fmap. The resulting traverse follows the functor laws just fine.

If we try to do it for different functors, though, we quickly run into trouble. Maybe looks simple enough…

… but the Nothing case stumps us: there is no value that can be supplied to f, which means the functorial context would have to be created out of nothing.

For another example, consider what we might do with an homogeneous pair type (or, if you will, a vector of length two):

Here, we seemingly have to choose between applying f to x or to y, and then using fmap (\z -> Duo z z) on the result. No matter the choice, though, discarding one of the values means the functor laws will be broken. A lawful implementation would require somehow combining the functorial values f x and f y.

As luck would have it, though, there is a type class which provides ways to both create a functorial context out of nothing and to combine functorial values: Applicative. pure solves the first problem; (<*>), the second:

Shifting to the terminology of containers for a moment, we can describe the matter by saying the version of traverse with the Functor constraint can only handle containers that hold exactly one value. Once the constraint is strengthened to Applicative, however, we have the means to deal with containers that may hold zero or many values. This is a very general solution: there are instances of Traversable for the Identity, Const, Sum, and Product functors, which suffice to encode any algebraic data type.3 That explains why the DeriveTraversable GHC extension exists. (Note, though, that Traversable instances in general aren’t unique.)

It must be noted that our reconstruction does not reflect how Traversable was discovered, as the idea of using it to walk across containers holding an arbitrary number of values was there from the start. That being so, Applicative plays an essential role in the usual presentations of Traversable. To illustrate that, I will now paraphrase Definition 3.3 in Jaskelioff and Rypacek’s An Investigation of the Laws of Traversals. It is formulated not in terms of traverse, but of sequenceA:

sequenceA is characterised as a natural transformation in the category of applicative functors which “respects the monoidal structure of applicative functor composition”. It is worth it to take a few moments to unpack that:

All of that seems only accidentally related to what we have done up to this point. However, if sequenceA is taken as the starting point, traverse can be defined in terms of it:

Crucially, the opposite path is also possible. It follows from parametricity4 that…

… which allows us to start from traverse, define…

… and continue as before. At this point, our narrative merges with the traditional account of Traversable.

A note about lenses

In the previous section, we saw how using Applicative rather than Functor in the type of traverse made it possible to handle containers which don’t necessarily hold just one value. It is not a coincidence that, in lens, this is precisely the difference between Traversal and Lens:

A Lens targets exactly one value. A Traversal might reach zero, one or many targets, which requires a strengthening of the constraint. Van Laarhoven (i.e. lens-style) Traversals and Lenses can be seen as a straightforward generalisation of the traverse-as-arrow-mapping view we have been discussing here, in which the, so to say, functoriality of the container isn’t necessarily reflected at type level in a direct way.

A note about profunctors

Early on, we noted that (<%<) gave us a category that cannot be expressed as a Haskell Category because its composition is too quirky. We have a general-purpose class that is often a good fit for things that look like functions, arrows and/or Category instances but don’t compose in conventional ways: Profunctor. And sure enough: profunctors defines a profunctor called Star

… which corresponds to the arrows of the category we presented in the first section. It should come as no surprise that Star is an instance of a class called Traversing

… which is a profunctor-oriented generalisation of Traversable.

Amusingly, it turns out there is a baroque way of expressing (<%<) composition with the profunctors vocabulary. Data.Profunctor.Composition gives us a notion of profunctor composition:

Procompose simply pairs two profunctorial values with matching extremities. That is unlike Category composition, which welds two arrows5 into one:

The difference is rather like that between combining functorial layers at type level with Compose and fusing monadic layers with join6.

Among a handful of other interesting things, Data.Functor.Procompose offers a lens-style isomorphism

… which gives us a rather lyrical encoding of (<%<):

If you feel like playing with that, note that Data.Profunctor.Sieve offers a more compact (though prosaic) spelling:

Further reading

  • The already mentioned An Investigation of the Laws of Traversals, by Mauro Jaskelioff and Ondrej Rypacek, is a fine entry point to the ways of formulating Traversable. It also touches upon some important matters I didn’t explore here, such as how the notion of container Traversable mobilises can be made precise, or the implications of the Traversable laws. I plan to discuss some aspects of these issues in a follow-up post.

  • Will Fancher’s Profunctors, Arrows, & Static Analysis is a good applied introduction to profunctors. In its final sections, it demonstrates some use cases for the Traversing class mentioned here.

  • The explanation of profunctor composition in this post is intentionally cursory. If you want to dig deeper, Dan Piponi’s Profunctors in Haskell can be a starting point. (N.B.: Wherever you see “cofunctor” there, read “contravariant functor” instead). Another option is going to Bartosz Milewski’s blog and searching for “profunctor” (most of the results will be relevant).


  1. For why that is a good idea, see Gabriel Gonzalez’s The functor design pattern.

  2. A more proper derivation for the results in this section can be found in this Stack Overflow answer, which I didn’t transcribe here to avoid boring you.

  3. Suffice, that is, with the help of the trivial data types, () (unit) and Void. As an arbitrary example, Maybe can be encoded using this functor toolkit as Sum (Const ()) Identity.

  4. The property is an immediate consequence of the free theorem for traverse. Cf. this Stack Overflow answer by Rein Heinrichs.

  5. I mean “arrows” in the general sense, and not necessarily Arrows as in Control.Arrow!

  6. This is not merely a loose analogy. For details, see Bartosz Milewski’s Monoids on Steroids, and and in particular its section about Arrows.