Vitalii Guzeev

Platonic Hask overview: subcategories, functors, and natural transformations

Aug 17, 2022

To index of the series

We have constructed the category of restricted Haskell types. It gave us a coherent notion of composition. But it’s not enough. The major strength of Haskell is its separation of computations of different natures. So we need to be able at least to cluster types into objects with some common property. Let’s develop machinery to deal with it.

Consider categories \(\mathrm{C}\) and \(\mathrm{D}\) with pair of mappings \(F_{\operatorname{Ob}} : \operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{C}) \to \operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{D})\) and \(F_{\operatorname{Hom}}\) with one of the following signatures: \(\operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(A,B) \to \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{D}}(F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(A),F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(B))\) or \(\operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(A,B) \to \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{D}}(F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(B),F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(A))\) — mapping of all morphisms of a category, defined on each Hom-set.

We can construct a pair \(F = (F_{\operatorname{Ob}}, F_{\operatorname{Hom}})\). Its definition contains all data necessary to define a map between categories. But the composition of such maps is not well-defined (check it). It can be fixed by the following definitions:


\(F\) is called a covariant functor or functor if the following diagram commutes:


or a contravariant functor if the following diagram commutes:


Here are several useful definitions:

Let \(F : \mathrm{C} \to \mathrm{D}\) be a functor (covariant, contravariant definitions are similar). Consider \(F_{\operatorname{Hom}}\).

If \(\forall A, B \in \mathrm{C}\; F_{\operatorname{Hom}} : \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(A,B) \to \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{D}}(F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(A),F_{\operatorname{Ob}}(B))\) is injective, \(F\) is called faithful. If surjective — full. If bijective — fully faithful.

Categories \(\mathrm{C}\) and \(\mathrm{D}\) are said to be equivalent if there exists fully faithful functor \(F : \mathrm{C} \to \mathrm{D}\) such that every object of \(\mathrm{D}\) is isomorphic to \(F(A)\) for some \(A \in \operatorname{C}\).

We have constructed the category \(Hask\) and we have a notion of composable mappings between categories. Functors from category to itself are called endofunctors. However, it may be convenient to talk about subcategories in \(Hask\) and about functors between them.

Category \(\mathrm{D}\) is a subcategory of \(\mathrm{C}\) if \(\operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{D}) \subseteq \operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{C})\) and \(\forall A,B \in \operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{D})\; \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{D}}(A,B) \subseteq \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(A,B)\).

If \(\forall A,B \in \operatorname{Ob}(\mathrm{D})\; \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{D}}(A,B) = \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(A,B)\) \(\mathrm{D}\) is called full subcategory of \(\mathrm{C}\).

Every subcategory gives rise to faithful embedding functor \(Emb : \mathrm{D} \to \mathrm{C}\) with identical actions both on objects and morphisms. If \(\mathrm{D}\) is a full subcategory, then \(Emb\) is fully faithful.

Now let’s take a look at functors in Hask.

Example: Functor typeclass and parametric types

Consider the declaration of new data type like data Either a b = Left a | Right b.

There are several possible constructions of \(Hask\)-endofunctor arising from this definition. The two most natural are defined here:

  1. \(Left_{\operatorname{Ob}}(a : a)\) = Left a; \(Left_{\operatorname{Hom}}(f : a \to c)\) = (\Left a -> Left (f a)).
  2. \(Right_{\operatorname{Ob}}(a : b)\) = Right a; \(Right_{\operatorname{Hom}}(f : b \to c)\) = (\Right a -> Right (f a)).

Both of them are well-defined covariant faithful endofunctors in \(Hask\). More specifically, \(Right\) is a functor to the category \(Either\;a\;\_\) and \(Left\) is a functor to the category \(Either\;\_\;b\).

However, only \(Right\) is supported by a valid Functor instance in Haskell. Instance for Either:

instance Functor (Either c) where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> (f a ->  f b)
  fmap _ (Left x) = Left x
  fmap f (Right y) = Right (f y)

Note: fmap defines the action of functor on morphisms. We change the Prelude definition for now — it is valid and will be justified in the next post.

Can \(Left\) functor be expressed? Yes:

swap :: Either b a -> Either a b
swap (Right a) = Left a
swap (Left a) = Right a
fmap' :: (a -> c) -> (Either a b -> Either c b)
fmap' f = swap . fmap f . swap

But it cannot be expressed in terms of Functor typeclass as long as there is no single-parametric type Either _ b in Haskell. In particular, we see that not any subcategory of \(Hask\) is encapsulated in a type.

Note that the uniqueness and derivability of Functor is not an elementary question. Since it’s not a question of category theory, let me refer to SO.

Laws of the Functor typeclass represent the usual definition of functor via the following diagram: haskfunctor

Yet another restriction on Haskell Functor typeclass is that it does not allow functors between nontrivial subcategories of \(Hask\).

Example of such a functor: \(LM : [] \to Maybe\);

\(LM_{\operatorname{Ob}}\) = listToMaybe;

\(LM_{\operatorname{Hom}}\) = \f -> listToMaybe . f . maybeToList.

This functor is fully faithful. It admits faithful functor to the other side:

\(ML_{\operatorname{Ob}}\) = maybeToList;

\(ML_{\operatorname{Hom}}\) = \f -> maybeToList . f . listToMaybe.

It’s easy to check that functor \(toList : Vector \to []\) with a similar definition makes subcategories of vectors and lists equivalent.

All three of these functors are not endofunctors in \(Hask\) since they are not everywhere defined.

Example: Hom-functors

For any category \(\mathrm{C}\) and object \(A\) there exist two functors.

First — \(\operatorname{Hom}(A,\_) : \mathrm{C} \to Set\) is a covariant functor, moving \(X\) to \(\operatorname{Hom}(A,X)\). Second — contravariant \(\operatorname{Hom}(\_,A)\) with the same signature, moving \(X\) to \(\operatorname{Hom}(X,A)\).

Both functors matter a lot for future constructions and obviously exist in \(Hask\).

Morphisms — functions between types, hence arrows a -> b. They are ordinary types, hence their prefix form is (->) a b and there can only exist Functor instance for covariant \(\operatorname{Hom}\).

Here it is (note that fully applied (->) is a function):

instance Functor ((->) a) where
  fmap f g = f . g

Let’s define alternating type <- isomorphic to (->) b a.

For this type, we can define an instance of Contravariant, which represent contravariant functors.

instance Contravariant ((<-) b) where
  contramap :: (a -> c) -> f c -> f a
  contramap f g = g . f

Laws of Contravariant form the following familiar diagram:


Other useful examples of functors

All these constructions are relevant to \(Hask\).

Let’s take a look at the introduced structures. At the level of types, we have types and morphisms between them. Morphisms can be surjective, injective, or bijective, in the last case they are isomorphisms. Now we turn to the level of subcategories of \(Hask\) and we have functors that can be full, faithful, or fully faithful. These properties are finer than properties of Set-level morphisms but they are similar in spirit.

At the moment we can take one of two steps:

  1. Broad: try to introduce some category of subcategories of \(Hask\) and explore it. Probably more than one if we want to take care of contravariant functors. Note that contravariant functors are covariant functors from the dual category — category with all arrows reversed.
  2. Deep: try to stack the next layer and define morphisms between functors.

For now, we follow the second path.


Consider \(F,G\), — covariant functors from \(\mathrm{C}\) to \(\mathrm{D}\). We will call family \(\eta\) of morphisms in \(\mathrm{D}\) natural transformation from \(F\) to \(G\) if for any object \(X\) in \(\operatorname{Ob}(C)\) and morphism \(f : X \to Y\) there exist morphisms \(\eta_X : F(X) \to G(X)\) and \(\eta_Y : F(Y) \to G(Y)\) in \(\mathrm{D}\) such that \(\forall f \in \operatorname{Hom}_{\mathrm{C}}(X,Y)\) the following diagram commutes:


If both functors are contravariant, vertical arrows are reversed.

This definition lets us see \(LM\)-functor from the other side — as a natural transformation between endofunctors \([]\) and \(Maybe\). Naturality is checked by the same reasoning as being a functor.

The Haskell ecosystem contains several packages trying to express natural transformation. For example, natural-transformation package.

It’s worth noting that popular servant (0.10, link to enter function) web framework used to use explicitly typed natural transformations very close to its user interface for a long time. Here is how it was used: v0.10 tutorial


Functors (covariant without loss of generality) between tho categories \(\mathrm{C}\) and \(\mathrm{D}\) with objects — functors and morphisms — natural transformations form a category.

This is a well-known statement not about \(Hask\) with obvious proof by construction, so it will not be given.

Note that in the example above \(LM \circ ML = Id_{Maybe}\).

This category of functors is denoted as \(\operatorname{Fun}(\mathrm{C},\mathrm{D})\). \(\operatorname{Fun}(\mathrm{C},\mathrm{C})\) has a more convenient synonym — \(\operatorname{End}(\mathrm{C})\) and is called category of endofunctors of \(\mathrm{C}\).

We come up with another notable object we will use in the future — category \(\operatorname{End}(Hask)\) of endofunctors of \(Hask\).