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[Caml-list] does class polymorphism need to be so complicated?
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Date: 2003-08-21 (00:27)
From: Jacques Garrigue <garrigue@k...>
Subject: Re: [Caml-list] does class polymorphism need to be so complicated?
From: Benjamin Geer <>

> wrote:
> > If you want to solve your problem, you'll need to coerce,
>  > [...]
> > A solution using polymorphic methods is sketched next,
> These are the two options I described in my original post.  Both are 
> inconvenient.  My original questions remain:
> Why is upcasting necessary, given that inheritance relationships are 
> known at compile time?  Could Caml be modified to correct this problem? 
>   Is any work currently being done on this?

Upcasting is needed because type inference in ocaml does not include
subtyping. There is work on type inference with subtyping, but it
would create much more complicated types, even for usual functions
which do not involve objects. Personally I don't think there is a
strong hope of combining full ML type inference with subtyping in a
practical programming language.

Now, ocaml tries to avoid the problem by providing something similar
to subtyping, but through ML polymorphism. This is the #printable
types. This is not exactly subtyping (in some cases an instance of
#printable is not a subtype of printable) but it is actually sometimes
closer to the notion of "usable in place of".

When using functions, this approach using "open rows" works well.
However there is a problem with methods.

> Why can't methods be polymorphic in the way that functions can be?

Methods are part of an object. In normal ML this means that the
polymorphism can only appear at the level of the object, not at the
level of the method (ML only allows outermost polymorphism).
As an additional twist, since in ocaml a class definition also defines
a type, all polymorphic variables must be explicitely declared as
parameters to the class, otherwise you get the dreaded
  Some type variables are unbound in this type

Anyway, what you want in many cases is not the object, but the method
to be polymorphic: you want to be able to apply the same method of the
same object to values of different types.

This is now possible with the introduction of polymorphic methods, but
only with a rather heavy syntax.
There are several reasons to that:
* since the "normal" behaviour would be to restrict the polymorphism
  to the object level, choosing to apply it automatically at the
  method level would be an arbitrary decision.
* contrary to functions, whose types are instantiated before
  unification, object method types have to be unified with their
  polymorphic variables not instantiated (because an object with a
  polymorphic method can be passed around, while only an instance of a
  polymorphic function would be passed around). This means that the
  "most general type" we would infer for a method would give rise to an
  object type incompatible with less general types. Not a good
  property for inference.
* last, by explicitely declaring a polymorphic type we make it
  possible to call it polymorphically from other methods in the same
  object. This seems to be a nice property to have between methods.
  You cannot do that with functions defined in the same "let rec"

> At the very least, would it be possible to add some syntactic sugar,
> so we could write:
> method process (obj : #thing) -> (* ... *)
> instead of:
> method process : 'a . (#thing as 'a ) -> unit =
>    fun obj -> (* ... *)

To speak truly, the current syntax is based on the assumption that you
won't define often polymorphic methods, and that defining them is a
work for library designers, not for the average end user.

This also means that you have a number of workarounds hiding this
heavy syntax to the end user, even when he has to define such a

For instance you could be provided a virtual class printer:

class virtual printer : object
  method virtual print : #printable -> unit
  method ...

Then you would use it as

class my_printer () = object
  inherit printer
  method print obj = ...

There is no need to write type information on the inheriting side.
You will get an error message if your method is not polymorphic

Another remark is that, when the only goal of the polymorphism is to
allow subtyping of the argument, the workaround of using an auxiliary
function as suggested by Brian Rogoff makes perfectly sense, and
avoids getting involved in the details of the object system.

class printer () = object
  method print (obj : printable) = ...

let print ~(printer : #printer) obj =
  printer#print (obj : #printable :> printable)
val print : printer:#printer -> #printable -> unit

Now the print function has a type polymorphic enough, and using it
makes clear you are using the print method of a printer, not of an
arbitrary object (which might have a completely unrelated print
method). This is more precise, and does the work in the traditional ML


Jacques Garrigue

P.S. Having a lighter syntax for polymorphic methods might be a good
idea. But since we must keep it explicit enough, the improvement would
be quite limited. The best I can think of is something like:
   method 'a. print (obj : #printable as 'a) = ...
Maybe a bit better, but also more complicated to handle.
An advantage of such a syntax is that it could also be used in normal
"let rec" to provide polymorphic recursion.

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