Flipping arrows in coBurger King

by Edward Z. Yang

Category theory crash course for the working Haskell programmer.

A frequent question that comes up when discussing the dual data structures—most frequently comonad—is “What does the co- mean?” The snippy category theory answer is: “Because you flip the arrows around.” This is confusing, because if you look at one variant of the monad and comonad typeclasses:

class Monad m where
  (>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
  return :: a -> m a

class Comonad w where
  (=>>) :: w a -> (w a -> b) -> w b
  extract :: w a -> a

there are a lot of “arrows”, and only a few of them flipped (specifically, the arrow inside the second argument of the >>= and =>> functions, and the arrow in return/extract). This article will make precise what it means to “flip arrows” and use the “dual category”, even if you don’t know a lick of category theory.

Notation. There will be several diagrams in this article. You can read any node (aka object) as a Haskell type, and any solid arrow (aka morphism) as a Haskell function between those two types. (There will be arrows of different colors to distinguish concepts.) So if I have f :: Int -> Bool, I will draw that as:


Functors. The Functor typeclass is familiar to the working Haskell programmer:

class Functor t where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> (t a -> t b)

While the typeclass seems to imply that there is only one part to an instance of Functor, the implementation of fmap, there is another, almost trivial part: t is now a type function of kind * -> *: it takes a type (a) and outputs a new type (unimaginatively named t a). So we can represent it by this diagram:


The arrows are colored differently for a good reason: they are indicating completely different things (and just happen to be on the same diagram). While the red arrow represents a concrete function a -> b (the first argument of fmap), the dashed blue arrow does not claim that a function a -> t a exists: it’s simply indicating how the functor maps from one type to another. It could be a type with no legal values! We could also posit the existence of a function of that type; in that case, we would have a pointed functor:

class Functor f => Pointed f where
  pure :: a -> f a -- aka return

But for our purposes, such a function (or is it?) won’t be interesting until we get to monads.

You may have heard of the Functor law, an equality that all Functors should satisfy. Here it is in textual form:

fmap (g . f) == fmap g . fmap f

and here it is in pictorial form:


One might imagine the diagram as a giant if..then statement: if f, g and g . f exist, then fmap f, fmap g and fmap (g . f) exist (just apply fmap to them!), and they happen to compose in the same way.

Now, it so happens that if we have f :: a -> b and g :: b -> c, g . f is also guaranteed to exist, so we didn’t really need to draw the arrow either. This is such an implicit notion of function composition, so we will take a moment and ask: why is that?

It turns out that when I draw a diagram of red arrows, I’m drawing what mathematicians call a category with objects and arrows. The last few diagrams have been drawn in what is called the category Hask, which has objects as Haskell types and arrows as Haskell functions. The definition of a category builds in arrow composition and identities:

class Category (~>) where
  (.) :: (b ~> c) -> (a ~> b) -> (a ~> c)
  id :: a ~> a

(you can mentally substitute ~> with -> for Hask) and there are also laws that make arrow composition associative. Most relevantly, the categorical arrows are precisely the arrows you flip when you talk about a dual category.

“Great!” you say, “Does that mean we’re done?” Unfortunately, not quite yet. It is true that the comonad is a monad for an opposite (or dual) category, it is not the category Hask. (This is not the category you are looking for!) Still, we’ve spent all this time getting comfortable drawing diagrams in Hask, and it would be a shame to not put this to good use. Thus, we are going to see an example of the dual category of Hask.

Contravariant functors. You may have heard fmap described as a function that “lifts” functions in to a functorial context: this “functorial context” is actually just another category. (To actually mathematically show this, we'd need to show that the functor laws are sufficient to preserve the category laws.) For normal functors, this category is just Hask (actually a subcategory of it, since only types t _ qualify as objects). For contravariant functors, this category is Hask^op.

Any function f :: a -> b in Hask becomes a function contramap f :: f b -> f a in a contravariant functor:

class ContraFunctor t where
  contramap :: (a -> b) -> t b -> t a

Here is the corresponding diagram:


Notice that we’ve partitioned the diagram into two sections: one in Hask, and one in Hask^op, and notice how the function arrows (red) flip going from one category to the other, while the functor arrows (blue) have not flipped. t a is still a contravariant functor value.

You might be scratching your head and wondering: is there any instance of contramap that we could actually use? In fact, there is a very simple one that follows directly from our diagram:

newtype ContraF a b = ContraF (b -> a)
instance ContraFunctor (ContraF a) where
  contramap g (ContraF f) = ContraF (f . g)

Understanding this instance is not too important for the rest of this article, but interested readers should compare it to the functor on normal functions. Beyond the newtype wrapping and unwrapping, there is only one change.

Natural transformations. I’m going to give away the punchline: in the case of comonads, the arrows you are looking for are natural transformations. What are natural transformations? What kind of category has natural transformations as arrows? In Haskell, natural transformations are roughly polymorphic functions: they’re mappings defined on functors. We’ll notate them in gray, and also introduce some new notation, since we will be handling multiple Functors: subscripts indicate types: fmap_t is fmap :: (a -> b) -> t a -> t b) and η_a is η :: t a -> s a.


Let’s review the three types of arrows flying around. The red arrows are functions, they are morphisms in the category Hask. The blue arrows are indicate a functor mapping between types; they also operate on functions to produce more functions (also in the category Hask: this makes them endofunctors). The gray arrows are also functions, so they can be viewed as morphisms in the category Hask, but sets of gray arrows across all types (objects) in Hask from one functor to another collectively form a natural transformation (two components of a natural transformation are depicted in the diagram). A single blue arrow is not a functor; a single gray arrow is not natural transformations. Rather, appropriately typed collections of them are functors and natural transformations.

Because f seems to be cluttering up the diagram, we could easily omit it:


Monad. Here is the typeclass, to refresh your memory:

class Monad m where
  (>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
  return :: a -> m a

You may have heard of an alternate way to define the Monad typeclass:

class Functor m => Monad m where
  join :: m (m a) -> m a
  return :: a -> m a


m >>= f = join (fmap f m)
join m = m >>= id

join is far more rooted in category theory (indeed, it defines the natural transformation that is the infamous binary operation that makes monads monoids), and you should convince yourself that either join or >>= will get the job done.

Suppose that we know nothing about what monad we’re dealing with, only that it is a monad. What sort of types might we see?


Curiously enough, I’ve colored the arrows here as natural transformations, not red, as we have been doing for undistinguished functions in Hask. But where are the functors? m a is trivial: any Monad is also a valid instance of functor. a seems like a plain value, but it can also be treated as Identity a, that is, a inside the identity functor:

newtype Identity a = Identity a
instance Functor Identity where
  fmap f (Identity x) = Identity (f x)

and Monad m => m (m a) is just a functor two skins deep:

fmap2 f m = fmap (fmap f) m

or, in point-free style:

fmap2 = fmap . fmap

(Each fmap embeds the function one functor deeper.) We can precisely notate the fact that these functors are composed with something like (cribbed from sigfpe):

type (f :<*> g) x = f (g x)

in which case m :<*> m is a functor.

While those diagrams stem directly from the definition of a monad, there are also important monad laws, which we can also draw diagrams for. I’ll draw just the monad identity laws with f:


return_a indicates return :: a -> m a, and join_a indicates join :: m (m a) -> m a. Here are the rest with f removed:


You can interpret light blue text as “fresh”—it is the new “layer” created (or compressed) by the natural transformation. The first diagram indicates the identity law (traditionally return x >>= f == f x and f >>= return == f); the second indicates associativity law (traditionally (m >>= f) >>= g == m >>= (\x -> f x >>= g)). The diagrams are equivalent to this code:

join . return == id == join . fmap return
join . join == join . fmap join

Comonads. Monads inhabit the category of endofunctors Hask -> Hask. The category of endofunctors has endofunctors as objects and (no surprise) natural transformations as arrows. So when we make a comonad, we flip the natural transformations. There are two of them: join and return.


Here is the type class:

class Functor w => Comonad w where
  cojoin :: w a -> w (w a)
  coreturn :: w a -> a

Which have been renamed duplicate and extract respectively.

We can also flip the natural transformation arrows to get our Comonad laws:

extract . duplicate == id == duplicate . extract
duplicate . duplicate == fmap duplicate . duplicate

Next time. While it is perfectly reasonable to derive <<= from cojoin and coreturn, some readers may feel cheated, for I have never actually discussed the functions from monad that Haskell programmers deal with on a regular basis: I just changed around the definitions until it was obvious what arrows to flip. So some time in the future, I hope to draw some diagrams for Kleisli arrows and show what that is about: in particular, why >=> and <=< are called Kleisli composition.

Apology. It being three in the morning, I’ve managed to omit all of the formal definitions and proofs! I am a very bad mathematician for doing so. Hopefully, after reading this, you will go to the Wikipedia articles on each of these topics and find their descriptions penetrable!

Postscript. You might be interested in this follow-up post about duality in simpler settings than monads/comonads.