Abstract definitions

Definitions can be marked as abstract, for the purpose of hiding implementation details, or to speed up type-checking of other parts. In essence, abstract definitions behave like postulates, thus, do not reduce/compute. For instance, proofs whose content does not matter could be marked abstract, to prevent Agda from unfolding them (which might slow down type-checking).

As a guiding principle, all the rules concerning abstract are designed to prevent the leaking of implementation details of abstract definitions. Similar concepts of other programming language include (non-representative sample): UCSD Pascal’s and Java’s interfaces and ML’s signatures. (Especially when abstract definitions are used in combination with modules.)


  • Declarations can be marked as abstract using the block keyword abstract.
  • Outside of abstract blocks, abstract definitions do not reduce, they are treated as postulates, in particular:
    • Abstract functions never match, thus, do not reduce.
    • Abstract data types do not expose their constructors.
    • Abstract record types do not expose their fields nor constructor.
    • Other declarations cannot be abstract.
  • Inside abstract blocks, abstract definitions reduce while type checking definitions, but not while checking their type signatures. Otherwise, due to dependent types, one could leak implementation details (e.g. expose reduction behavior by using propositional equality).
  • Inside private type signatures in abstract blocks, abstract definitions do reduce. However, there are some problems with this. See Issue #418.
  • The reach of the abstract keyword block extends recursively to the where-blocks of a function and the declarations inside of a record declaration, but not inside modules declared in an abstract block.


Integers can be implemented in various ways, e.g. as difference of two natural numbers:

module Integer where

  abstract= Nat × Nat

    0ℤ :0= 0 , 0

    1ℤ :1= 1 , 0

    _+ℤ_ : (x y :) (p , n) +ℤ (p' , n') = (p + p') , (n + n')

    -ℤ_ : ℤ
    -ℤ (p , n) = (n , p)

    _≡ℤ_ : (x y :)  Set
    (p , n) ≡ℤ (p' , n') = (p + n')(p' + n)

        +comm :  n m  (n + m)(m + n)

    invℤ :  x  (x +ℤ (-ℤ x)) ≡ℤ 0ℤ
    invℤ (p , n) rewrite +comm (p + n) 0 | +comm p n = refl

Using abstract we do not give away the actual representation of integers, nor the implementation of the operations. We can construct them from 0ℤ, 1ℤ, _+ℤ_, and -ℤ, but only reason about equality ≡ℤ with the provided lemma invℤ.

The following property shape-of-0ℤ of the integer zero exposes the representation of integers as pairs. As such, it is rejected by Agda: when checking its type signature, proj₁ x fails to type check since x is of abstract type . Remember that the abstract definition of does not unfold in type signatures, even when in an abstract block! However, if we make shape-of-ℤ private, unfolding of abstract definitions like is enabled, and we succeed:

-- A property about the representation of zero integers:

      shape-of-0ℤ :  (x :) (is0ℤ : x ≡ℤ 0)  proj₁ x ≡ proj₂ x
      shape-of-0ℤ (p , n) refl rewrite +comm p 0 = refl

By requiring shape-of-0ℤ to be private to type-check, leaking of representation details is prevented.

Scope of abstraction

In child modules, when checking an abstract definition, the abstract definitions of the parent module are transparent:

module M1 where
    x = 0

  module M2 where
      x-is-0 : x ≡ 0
      x-is-0 = refl

Thus, child modules can see into the representation choices of their parent modules. However, parent modules cannot see like this into child modules, nor can sibling modules see through each others abstract definitions.

The reach of the abstract keyword does not extend into modules:

module Parent where
    module Child where
      y = 0
    x = 0  -- to avoid "useless abstract" error

  y-is-0 : Child.y ≡ 0
  y-is-0 = refl

The declarations in module Child are not abstract!

Abstract definitions with where-blocks

Definitions in a where block of an abstract definition are abstract as well. This means, they can see through the abstractions of their uncles:

module Where where
    x : Nat
    x = 0
    y : Nat
    y = x
      x≡y : x ≡ 0
      x≡y = refl

Type signatures in where blocks are private, so it is fine to make type abbreviations in where blocks of abstract definitions:

module WherePrivate where
    x : Nat
    x = proj₁ t
      T = Nat × Nat
      t : T
      t = 0 , 1
      p : proj₁ t ≡ 0
      p = refl

Note that if p was not private, application proj₁ t in its type would be ill-formed, due to the abstract definition of T.

Named where-modules do not make their declarations private, thus this example will fail if you replace x’s where by module M where.