Stepan ParunashviliTwitter

Classes are just a fancy way of writing higher order functions

Joe and I recently kicked off a re-read of SICP. I can say that it is the most interesting textbook I have gone through. Imagine, you begin with just 4 or 5 constructs, and you end up building algebraic equation solvers, circuit simulators, and even logic programming languages. Because you start off with such few constructs, the added benefit is that you begin to see the fundamentally simple, shared essence in programming.

I wanted to give you one example that surprised me in the book. We tend to think that classes belong in a fundamentally different category from functions.

But are they so different?

For example, let’s say we have a class like this:

class Person { 
  constructor(firstName, lastName) {
    this.fName = firstName; 
    this.lName = lastName;
  }
  getFullName() { 
    return this.fName + ' ' + this.lName;
  }
  setFirstName(firstName) {
    this.fName = firstName;
  }
}

Well, if we think about it, this is really just a higher order function. a Person higher order function accepts arguments (constructor), and returns a list of functions that can manipulate those arguments (methods). We could write Person like this:

 function Person(firstName, lastName) {
  let fName = firstName; 
  let lName = lastName;

  function getFullName() { 
    return fName + ' ' + lName;
  }
  
  function setFirstName(firstName) { 
    fName = firstName
  }

  return function(method) { 
    switch (method) { 
      case 'getFullName': 
        return getFullName;
      case 'setFirstName': 
        return setFirstName;  
    }
  }
}

Now,

const person = new Person("Ben", "Bitdiddle")
person.getFullName()

becomes

const person = Person("Ben", "Bitdiddle")
person('getFullName')()

Here, instead of invoking a method, we are “passing” a message. This is why by the way, many classic OO folks talk about object orientation really being about message passing.

Yup, really. Classes are just higher order functions, which accept arguments (constructor) and return a list of functions that can manipulate those arguments (methods).

When you previously thought two concepts were different, but they turn out to be the same, you’re ripe to discover new ideas: you can find the deeper abstractions between them, apply ideas from across those seemingly different categories, and move between concepts more fluidly. So, not only are epiphanies like this fun, but they’re much more useful than you’d think.

If you liked this, there are a ton of similar epiphanies in the textbook. To experience it best, I suggest picking a partner and working through the book together.

Thanks to Daniel Woelfel, Alex Reichert, Jacky Wang for reviewing drafts of this essay


Thoughts? Reach out to me via twitter or email : )