Instance Arguments

Instance arguments are the Agda equivalent of Haskell type class constraints and can be used for many of the same purposes. In Agda terms, they are implicit arguments that get solved by a special instance resolution algorithm, rather than by the unification algorithm used for normal implicit arguments. In principle, an instance argument is resolved, if a unique instance of the required type can be built from declared instances and the current context.


Instance arguments are enclosed in double curly braces {{ }}, or their unicode equivalent (U+2983 and U+2984, which can be typed as \{{ and \}} in the Emacs mode). For instance, given a function _==_

_==_ : {A : Set} {{eqA : Eq A}}  A  A  Bool

for some suitable type Eq, you might define

elem : {A : Set} {{eqA : Eq A}}  A  List A  Bool
elem x (y ∷ xs) = x == y || elem x xs
elem x []       = false

Here the instance argument to _==_ is solved by the corresponding argument to elem. Just like ordinary implicit arguments, instance arguments can be given explicitly. The above definition is equivalent to

elem : {A : Set} {{eqA : Eq A}}  A  List A  Bool
elem {{eqA}} x (y ∷ xs) = _==_ {{eqA}} x y || elem {{eqA}} x xs
elem         x []       = false

A very useful function that exploits this is the function it which lets you apply instance resolution to solve an arbitrary goal:

it :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : A}}  A
it {{x}} = x

Note that instance arguments in types are always named, but the name can be _:

_==_ : {A : Set}  {{Eq A}}  A  A  Bool    -- INVALID
_==_ : {A : Set} {{_ : Eq A}}  A  A  Bool  -- VALID

Defining type classes

The type of an instance argument must have the form {Γ} C vs, where C is a bound variable or the name of a data or record type, and {Γ} denotes an arbitrary number of (ordinary) implicit arguments (see dependent instances below for an example where Γ is non-empty). Other than that there are no requirements on the type of an instance argument. In particular, there is no special declaration to say that a type is a “type class”. Instead, Haskell-style type classes are usually defined as record types. For instance,

record Monoid {a} (A : Set a) : Set a where
    mempty : A
    _<>_   : A  A  A

In order to make the fields of the record available as functions taking instance arguments you can use the special module application

open Monoid {{...}} public

This will bring into scope

mempty :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Monoid A}}  A
_<>_   :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Monoid A}}  A  A  A

Superclass dependencies can be implemented using Instance fields.

See Module application and Record modules for details about how the module application is desugared. If defined by hand, mempty would be

mempty :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Monoid A}}  A
mempty {{mon}} = Monoid.mempty mon

Although record types are a natural fit for Haskell-style type classes, you can use instance arguments with data types to good effect. See the examples below.

Declaring instances

A seen above, instance arguments in the context are available when solving instance arguments, but you also need to be able to define top-level instances for concrete types. This is done using the instance keyword, which starts a block in which each definition is marked as an instance available for instance resolution. For example, an instance Monoid (List A) can be defined as

  ListMonoid :  {a} {A : Set a}  Monoid (List A)
  ListMonoid = record { mempty = []; _<>_ = _++_ }

Or equivalently, using copatterns:

  ListMonoid :  {a} {A : Set a}  Monoid (List A)
  mempty {{ListMonoid}} = []
  _<>_   {{ListMonoid}} xs ys = xs ++ ys

Top-level instances must target a named type (Monoid in this case), and cannot be declared for types in the context.

You can define local instances in let-expressions in the same way as a top-level instance. For example:

mconcat :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Monoid A}}  List A  A
mconcat [] = mempty
mconcat (x ∷ xs) = x <> mconcat xs

sum : List Nat  Nat
sum xs =
  let instance
        NatMonoid : Monoid Nat
        NatMonoid = record { mempty = 0; _<>_ = _+_ }
  in mconcat xs

Instances can have instance arguments themselves, which will be filled in recursively during instance resolution. For instance,

record Eq {a} (A : Set a) : Set a where
    _==_ : A  A  Bool

open Eq {{...}} public

  eqList :  {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Eq A}}  Eq (List A)
  _==_ {{eqList}} []       []       = true
  _==_ {{eqList}} (x ∷ xs) (y ∷ ys) = x == y && xs == ys
  _==_ {{eqList}} _        _        = false

  eqNat : Eq Nat
  _==_ {{eqNat}} = natEquals

ex : Bool
ex = (123 ∷ []) == (12 ∷ []) -- false

Note the two calls to _==_ in the right-hand side of the second clause. The first uses the Eq A instance and the second uses a recursive call to eqList. In the example ex, instance resolution, needing a value of type Eq (List Nat), will try to use the eqList instance and find that it needs an instance argument of type Eq Nat, it will then solve that with eqNat and return the solution eqList {{eqNat}}.


At the moment there is no termination check on instances, so it is possible to construct non-sensical instances like loop : {a} {A : Set a} {{_ : Eq A}} Eq A. To prevent looping in cases like this, the search depth of instance search is limited, and once the maximum depth is reached, a type error will be thrown. You can set the maximum depth using the --instance-search-depth flag.

Constructor instances

Although instance arguments are most commonly used for record types, mimicking Haskell-style type classes, they can also be used with data types. In this case you often want the constructors to be instances, which is achieved by declaring them inside an instance block. Typically arguments to constructors are not instance arguments, so during instance resolution explicit arguments are treated as instance arguments. See instance resolution below for the details.

A simple example of a constructor that can be made an instance is the reflexivity constructor of the equality type:

data _≡_ {a} {A : Set a} (x : A) : A  Set a where
  instance refl : x ≡ x

This allows trivial equality proofs to be inferred by instance resolution, which can make working with functions that have preconditions less of a burden. As an example, here is how one could use this to define a function that takes a natural number and gives back a Fin n (the type of naturals smaller than n):

data Fin : Nat  Set where
  zero :  {n}  Fin (suc n)
  suc  :  {n}  Fin n  Fin (suc n)

mkFin :  {n} (m : Nat) {{_ : suc m - n ≡ 0}}  Fin n
mkFin {zero}  m {{}}
mkFin {suc n} zero    = zero
mkFin {suc n} (suc m) = suc (mkFin m)

five : Fin 6
five = mkFin 5 -- OK

In the first clause of mkFin we use an absurd pattern to discharge the impossible assumption suc m 0. See the next section for another example of constructor instances.

Record fields can also be declared instances, with the effect that the corresponding projection function is considered a top-level instance.


Dependent instances

Consider a variant on the Eq class where the equality function produces a proof in the case the arguments are equal:

record Eq {a} (A : Set a) : Set a where
    _==_ : (x y : A)  Maybe (x ≡ y)

open Eq {{...}} public

A simple boolean-valued equality function is problematic for types with dependencies, like the Σ-type

data Σ {a b} (A : Set a) (B : A  Set b) : Set (a ⊔ b) where
  _,_ : (x : A)  B x  Σ A B

since given two pairs x , y and x₁ , y₁, the types of the second components y and y₁ can be completely different and not admit an equality test. Only when x and x₁ are really equal can we hope to compare y and y₁. Having the equality function return a proof means that we are guaranteed that when x and x₁ compare equal, they really are equal, and comparing y and y₁ makes sense.

An Eq instance for Σ can be defined as follows:

  eqΣ :  {a b} {A : Set a} {B : A  Set b} {{_ : Eq A}} {{_ :  {x}  Eq (B x)}}  Eq (Σ A B)
  _==_ {{eqΣ}} (x , y) (x₁ , y₁) with x == x₁
  _==_ {{eqΣ}} (x , y) (x₁ , y₁)    | nothing = nothing
  _==_ {{eqΣ}} (x , y) (.x , y₁)    | just refl with y == y₁
  _==_ {{eqΣ}} (x , y) (.x , y₁)    | just refl    | nothing   = nothing
  _==_ {{eqΣ}} (x , y) (.x , .y)    | just refl    | just refl = just refl

Note that the instance argument for B states that there should be an Eq instance for B x, for any x : A. The argument x must be implicit, indicating that it needs to be inferred by unification whenever the B instance is used. See instance resolution below for more details.

Instance resolution

Given a goal that should be solved using instance resolution we proceed in the following four stages:

Verify the goal

First we check that the goal is not already solved. This can happen if there are unification constraints determining the value, or if it is of singleton record type and thus solved by eta-expansion.

Next we check that the goal type has the right shape to be solved by instance resolution. It should be of the form {Γ} C vs, where the target type C is a variable from the context or the name of a data or record type, and {Γ} denotes a telescope of implicit arguments. If this is not the case instance resolution fails with an error message[1].

Finally we have to check that there are no unconstrained metavariables in vs. A metavariable α is considered constrained if it appears in an argument that is determined by the type of some later argument, or if there is an existing constraint of the form α us = C vs, where C inert (i.e. a data or type constructor). For example, α is constrained in T α xs if T : (n : Nat) Vec A n Set, since the type of the second argument of T determines the value of the first argument. The reason for this restriction is that instance resolution risks looping in the presence of unconstrained metavariables. For example, suppose the goal is Eq α for some metavariable α. Instance resolution would decide that the eqList instance was applicable if setting α := List β for a fresh metavariable β, and then proceed to search for an instance of Eq β.

Find candidates
In the second stage we compute a set of candidates. Let-bound variables and top-level definitions in scope are candidates if they are defined in an instance block. Lambda-bound variables, i.e. variables bound in lambdas, function types, left-hand sides, or module parameters, are candidates if they are bound as instance arguments using {{ }}. Only candidates that compute something of type C us, where C is the target type computed in the previous stage, are considered.
Check the candidates

We attempt to use each candidate in turn to build an instance of the goal type {Γ} C vs. First we extend the current context by Γ. Then, given a candidate c : Δ A we generate fresh metavariables αs : Δ for the arguments of c, with ordinary metavariables for implicit arguments, and instance metavariables, solved by a recursive call to instance resolution, for explicit arguments and instance arguments.

Next we unify A[Δ := αs] with C vs and apply instance resolution to the instance metavariables in αs. Both unification and instance resolution have three possible outcomes: yes, no, or maybe. In case we get a no answer from any of them, the current candidate is discarded, otherwise we return the potential solution λ {Γ} c αs.

Compute the result

From the previous stage we get a list of potential solutions. If the list is empty we fail with an error saying that no instance for C vs could be found (no). If there is a single solution we use it to solve the goal (yes), and if there are multiple solutions we check if they are all equal. If they are, we solve the goal with one of them (yes), but if they are not, we postpone instance resolution (maybe), hoping that some of the maybes will turn into nos once we know more about the involved metavariables.

If there are left-over instance problems at the end of type checking, the corresponding metavariables are printed in the Emacs status buffer together with their types and source location. The candidates that gave rise to potential solutions can be printed with the show constraints command (C-c C-=).

[1]Instance goal verification is buggy at the moment. See issue #1322.