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the magic Const, Identity and tuple

If you are looking for a good example of taking something simple and turning it into something indistinguishable from magic, look no further, I have just the thing: the Const type.


The definition of Const is a simple one, as from Data.Functor.Const:

newtype Const a b = Const { getConst :: a }

Note the second type parameter b is not used in the constructor. For example, Const "a", which is of type Const [Char] b.

One interesting effect of this, is that b can be interpreted as any type, we can try this out with GHCi.

Data.Functor.Const> :t (Const "a" :: Const [Char] Int)
(Const "a" :: Const [Char] Int) :: Const [Char] Int

Data.Functor.Const> :t (Const "a" :: Const [Char] Bool)
(Const "a" :: Const [Char] Bool) :: Const [Char] Bool

Due to such strangeness as with the ignored b, Const is called a phantom type.

as a Functor

With the above definition, its Functor instance is pretty routine but equally interesting.

instance Functor (Const m) where
    fmap _ (Const v) = Const v

Remember fmap :: (a -> b) -> (F a) -> (F b), the above implementation thus specializes to type fmap :: (a -> b) -> (Const x a) -> (Const x b), however, both a and b are discarded, so (a -> b) has nothing to act on, and is thus also discarded and replaced with _.

Data.Functor.Const> (+1) <$>  Const "a"
Const "a"

Data.Functor.Const> length <$>  Const "a"
Const "a"

We can throw any function at it, in vain, a Const value is resistant to fmap.


The Applicative instance is even more interesting. (Note for simplicity this is different than the definition in Prelude)

instance Monoid m => Applicative (Const m) where
    pure _ = Const mempty
    Const x <*> Const y = Const (x `mappend` y)

m is required to be a Monoid. Why? Well, remember the instance specializes to

<*> :: Const x (a -> b) -> Const x (a) -> Const x b

As with the Functor instance, (a -> b), a and b are ignored all together. But different than the Functor instance, we now have two values x and y to dispose of. What do we do with them? We can't just throw them away, or just keep one of them (we CAN but it'll be like cheating), One easy solution is just to somehow combine them, and what better way to express that than with Monoid?

Data.Functor.Const> Const "a" <*> Const "b"
Const "ab"

-- but not this as Char is not a monoid
Data.Functor.Const> :t Const 'a' <*> Const 'b'
<interactive>:1:1: error:
    _ No instance for (Monoid Char) arising from a use of '<*>'
    _ In the expression: Const 'a' <*> Const 'b'

Hence the Monoid constraint. Makes sense.

a trickery

Now the introduction is over, let's look at an intriguing use of Const, with the lens library as described here. Say we have a Person type.

data Person = Person { name :: String } deriving (Show, Eq)

And to recap the famous Lens definition, double primed to avoid conflict,

type Lens'' s t a b = forall f. Functor f => (a -> f b) -> s -> f t

We can define a lens lname to focus on name of Person. Note fname is a function that act on the name field.

lname :: Lens'' Person Person String String
lname fname p = (\n -> p { name = n }) <$> fname (name p)

This innocuous lname updates a Person record, but wrapped in a Functor - as a matter of fact, any Functor. As a trivial example, we pass in Identity.reverse to reverse the name.

> runIdentity $ lname (Identity . reverse) $ Person "Hackle"
Person {name = "elkcaH"}

Pretty straightforward, right? What is less so, is when we pass in Const instead,

> getConst $ lname Const $ Person "Hackle"

We get the name back, and the name only! What happened to the Person? Shouldn't it have been modified and returned? Well, it's been thrown away, thanks to Cosnt. Let's recap the implementation of lname,

lname fname p = (\n -> p { name = n }) <$> fname (name p)

and put Const in place of fname, with a bit of partial application, we get,

lname p = (\n -> p { name = n }) <$> Const (name p)

Now remember the implementation of fmap for Const? It will keep the name value through fmap as it's resistant to it.

Clever right? For one thing, it certainly fits the grand scheme of lens pretty well.

Identity and Const as one

It's well known that for lens, Identity is used for setting / overriding of values, and Const for viewing values (as shown above). However, a pretty well hidden secret is, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Which coin, you ask? Just the good old tuple, I say.

Taking a tuple (a, b), Const can be seen as only needing a, as in (a, undefined); Identity, on the other hand, only uses b, so it's isomorphic to (undefined, b).

To see how this works let's make a couple of helper functions,

mkIdentity a = (undefined, a)
mkConst a = (a, undefined)

Then we can use them in place of Identity and Const as follows:

> snd $ lname mkIdentity $ Person "Hackle"
Person {name = "Hackle"}
> fst $ lname mkConst $ Person "Hackle"

You would have noticed that (a, b) is both a Functor and an Applicative - that's why we get no complaints from GHCi.

Be warned though, when trying them out in GHCi, it won't work without applying snd and fst, as undefined will kick in. Thanks to laziness, if we avoid touching undefined in the tuple, there would be no exception.

The acute reader would have been screaming already - why use undefined at all? Just duplicate the value for the tuple as (a, a)! And we don't have to worry about GHCi blowing up. Indeed that works.

> dup = \a -> (a, a)
> lname (dup . reverse) $ Person "Hackle"
("elkcaH",Person {name = "elkcaH"})
> fst $ lname (dup . reverse) $ Person "Hackle"
> snd $ lname (dup . reverse) $ Person "Hackle"
Person {name = "elkcaH"}

This of course is no coincidence. In essence Identity, Const and (a, b) are all product types and therefore have much in common. In practice we'd still be using Const and Identity as they are safer and more expressive, but if you find them confusing, then the above understanding may be helpful.


As with most things in Haskell, there is no real magic with Const, it's all about solid reasoning around simple, solid ideas. However, the use of such basic ideas, when combined with one another, can appear quite extraordinary.

To spot and use such trickery, we'll also need to build an intuition around it - which requires much practice; or at times, shortcuts may come in handy, such as tuple for Identity and Const.