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Implementing Type classes

A type class is an abstract, parameterized type that lets you add new behavior to any closed data type without using sub-typing. This can be useful in multiple use-cases, for example:

  • expressing how a type you don't own (from the standard or 3rd-party library) conforms to such behavior
  • expressing such a behavior for multiple types without involving sub-typing relationships (one extends another) between those types (see: ad hoc polymorphism for instance)

Therefore in Scala 3, type classes are just traits with one or more parameters whose implementations are not defined through the extends keyword, but by given instances. Here are some examples of common type classes:

Semigroups and monoids

Here's the Monoid type class definition:

trait SemiGroup[T]:
  extension (x: T) def combine (y: T): T

trait Monoid[T] extends SemiGroup[T]:
  def unit: T

An implementation of this Monoid type class for the type String can be the following:

given Monoid[String] with
  extension (x: String) def combine (y: String): String = x.concat(y)
  def unit: String = ""

Whereas for the type Int one could write the following:

given Monoid[Int] with
  extension (x: Int) def combine (y: Int): Int = x + y
  def unit: Int = 0

This monoid can now be used as context bound in the following combineAll method:

def combineAll[T: Monoid](xs: List[T]): T =

To get rid of the summon[...] we can define a Monoid object as follows:

object Monoid:
  def apply[T](using m: Monoid[T]) = m

Which would allow to re-write the combineAll method this way:

def combineAll[T: Monoid](xs: List[T]): T =


A Functor for a type provides the ability for its values to be "mapped over", i.e. apply a function that transforms inside a value while remembering its shape. For example, to modify every element of a collection without dropping or adding elements. We can represent all types that can be "mapped over" with F. It's a type constructor: the type of its values becomes concrete when provided a type argument. Therefore we write it F[_], hinting that the type F takes another type as argument. The definition of a generic Functor would thus be written as:

trait Functor[F[_]]:
  def map[A, B](x: F[A], f: A => B): F[B]

Which could read as follows: "A Functor for the type constructor F[_] represents the ability to transform F[A] to F[B] through the application of function f with type A => B". We call the Functor definition here a type class. This way, we could define an instance of Functor for the List type:

given Functor[List] with
  def map[A, B](x: List[A], f: A => B): List[B] =
    x.map(f) // List already has a `map` method

With this given instance in scope, everywhere a type with a Functor context bound is expected, the compiler will accept a List to be used.

For instance, we may write such a testing method:

def assertTransformation[F[_]: Functor, A, B](expected: F[B], original: F[A], mapping: A => B): Unit =
  assert(expected == summon[Functor[F]].map(original, mapping))

And use it this way, for example:

assertTransformation(List("a1", "b1"), List("a", "b"), elt => s"${elt}1")

That's a first step, but in practice we probably would like the map function to be a method directly accessible on the type F. So that we can call map directly on instances of F, and get rid of the summon[Functor[F]] part. As in the previous example of Monoids, extension methods help achieving that. Let's re-define the Functor type class with extension methods.

trait Functor[F[_]]:
  extension [A](x: F[A])
    def map[B](f: A => B): F[B]

The instance of Functor for List now becomes:

given Functor[List] with
  extension [A](xs: List[A])
    def map[B](f: A => B): List[B] =
      xs.map(f) // List already has a `map` method

It simplifies the assertTransformation method:

def assertTransformation[F[_]: Functor, A, B](expected: F[B], original: F[A], mapping: A => B): Unit =
  assert(expected == original.map(mapping))

The map method is now directly used on original. It is available as an extension method since original's type is F[A] and a given instance for Functor[F[A]] which defines map is in scope.


Applying map in Functor[List] to a mapping function of type A => B results in a List[B]. So applying it to a mapping function of type A => List[B] results in a List[List[B]]. To avoid managing lists of lists, we may want to "flatten" the values in a single list.

That's where Monad comes in. A Monad for type F[_] is a Functor[F] with two more operations:

  • flatMap, which turns an F[A] into an F[B] when given a function of type A => F[B],
  • pure, which creates an F[A] from a single value A.

Here is the translation of this definition in Scala 3:

trait Monad[F[_]] extends Functor[F]:

  /** The unit value for a monad */
  def pure[A](x: A): F[A]

  extension [A](x: F[A])
    /** The fundamental composition operation */
    def flatMap[B](f: A => F[B]): F[B]

    /** The `map` operation can now be defined in terms of `flatMap` */
    def map[B](f: A => B) = x.flatMap(f.andThen(pure))

end Monad


A List can be turned into a monad via this given instance:

given listMonad: Monad[List] with
  def pure[A](x: A): List[A] =
  extension [A](xs: List[A])
    def flatMap[B](f: A => List[B]): List[B] =
      xs.flatMap(f) // rely on the existing `flatMap` method of `List`

Since Monad is a subtype of Functor, List is also a functor. The Functor's map operation is already provided by the Monad trait, so the instance does not need to define it explicitly.


Option is an other type having the same kind of behaviour:

given optionMonad: Monad[Option] with
  def pure[A](x: A): Option[A] =
  extension [A](xo: Option[A])
    def flatMap[B](f: A => Option[B]): Option[B] = xo match
      case Some(x) => f(x)
      case None => None


Another example of a Monad is the Reader Monad, which acts on functions instead of data types like List or Option. It can be used to combine multiple functions that all need the same parameter. For instance multiple functions needing access to some configuration, context, environment variables, etc.

Let's define a Config type, and two functions using it:

trait Config
// ...
def compute(i: Int)(config: Config): String = ???
def show(str: String)(config: Config): Unit = ???

We may want to combine compute and show into a single function, accepting a Config as parameter, and showing the result of the computation, and we'd like to use a monad to avoid passing the parameter explicitly multiple times. So postulating the right flatMap operation, we could write:

def computeAndShow(i: Int): Config => Unit = compute(i).flatMap(show)

instead of


Let's define this flatMap then. First, we are going to define a type named ConfigDependent representing a function that when passed a Config produces a Result.

type ConfigDependent[Result] = Config => Result

The monad instance will look like this:

given configDependentMonad: Monad[ConfigDependent] with

  def pure[A](x: A): ConfigDependent[A] =
    config => x

  extension [A](x: ConfigDependent[A])
    def flatMap[B](f: A => ConfigDependent[B]): ConfigDependent[B] =
      config => f(x(config))(config)

end configDependentMonad

The type ConfigDependent can be written using type lambdas:

type ConfigDependent = [Result] =>> Config => Result

Using this syntax would turn the previous configDependentMonad into:

given configDependentMonad: Monad[[Result] =>> Config => Result] with

  def pure[A](x: A): Config => A =
    config => x

  extension [A](x: Config => A)
    def flatMap[B](f: A => Config => B): Config => B =
      config => f(x(config))(config)

end configDependentMonad

It is likely that we would like to use this pattern with other kinds of environments than our Config trait. The Reader monad allows us to abstract away Config as a type parameter, named Ctx in the following definition:

given readerMonad[Ctx]: Monad[[X] =>> Ctx => X] with

  def pure[A](x: A): Ctx => A =
    ctx => x

  extension [A](x: Ctx => A)
    def flatMap[B](f: A => Ctx => B): Ctx => B =
      ctx => f(x(ctx))(ctx)

end readerMonad


The definition of a type class is expressed with a parameterised type with abstract members, such as a trait. The main difference between subtype polymorphism and ad-hoc polymorphism with type classes is how the definition of the type class is implemented, in relation to the type it acts upon. In the case of a type class, its implementation for a concrete type is expressed through a given instance definition, which is supplied as an implicit argument alongside the value it acts upon. With subtype polymorphism, the implementation is mixed into the parents of a class, and only a single term is required to perform a polymorphic operation. The type class solution takes more effort to set up, but is more extensible: Adding a new interface to a class requires changing the source code of that class. But contrast, instances for type classes can be defined anywhere.

To conclude, we have seen that traits and given instances, combined with other constructs like extension methods, context bounds and type lambdas allow a concise and natural expression of type classes.