Swift Is Not Functional

Ever since Swift came out, I keep seeing weird comments that Swift is a functional programming language. I’ve puzzled a bit over why anyone would say that, since there’s really very little “functional” about Swift. It’s a pretty traditional object oriented language with a focus on generic programming.

My conjecture is that people are using a feature list to determine a language’s paradigm. But there’s a reason we use the word paradigm.

paradigm. (n) A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject

“A worldview.” Yeah, that captures it.

Language paradigms are a lot like musical genres. They’re messy things and we can argue about where to draw the lines and what goes where and what’s pure and what’s fusion. But classical guitar and heavy metal are different genres, even if they both use guitars.

I have friends who say they have a very broad taste in music. They listen to “everything.” From Jimmy Buffet to Metallica, they love every kind of music there is. Many programmers are the same way. They’ve only ever known the procedural and object oriented paradigms. They think BASIC and Java are as different as languages can get. When they encounter a new language, their first question is “what’s the syntax?” Their question should be “how does it think about problems?”

I’m going to say a lot about paradigms now. Like musical genres, there are many opinions and ways of categorizing things. My way is not the only way. But some ways are more useful than others. I’m saying that a taxonomy that groups together Swift and Haskell because they have map is no more useful than grouping Wangga, Opera, and Rock together because they have vocalists.

Procedural (or imperative) programming is primarily concerned with decomposing problems into a sequence of actions. Its usual structure is “do step one, then repeat step two until something is true, then do step three.” This paradigm is so common in popular languages that many programmers think this is what it means to program. It isn’t. It’s just one way to decompose problems. When faced with a problem, the procedural question is “what steps do I need to perform to solve this?”

Object-oriented programming is primarily concerned with decomposing problems into a collection of self-contained objects with properties, and methods that manipulate those properties. Its usual structure is a hierarchy of classes with instances (objects) that inherit properties and methods. When faced with a problem, the OOP question is “what kinds of objects need to work together to solve this?”

Both of these ways of thinking are very, very common in popular programming languages and work well together. Procedural programming has been with us since the first machine languages. Even the early automated weaving machines were working in a procedural paradigm.

OOP has dominated programming since the nineties. It’s been the dominant paradigm so long, and has dominated CS programs so long, that many programmers think it’s a given. They assume that only “ancient languages” like Fortran lack objects (and even Fortran now has objects).

But OOP is just one way of thinking about problems. Functional programming is a different way of thinking about problems. Functional programming is primarily concerned with decomposing problems into functions that accept and return immutable values. Its usual structure is a collection of functions that transform values into other values, and various ways to combine functions. It avoids mutable state and does not require that the evaluation of functions occur in any particular order. Functional programming treats a program as a math problem rather than a series of operations. When faced with a problem, the functional question is “what kinds of values need to be transformed in what ways to solve this?”

When you first started playing with Swift, what was the first thing you looked for? Maybe how it handled classes and protocols? How to call methods, declare and assign variables, define properties? Their version of for and while loops? These are all OOP and procedural tools, and you were right to think they would all be readily available and easy to use. You just needed to know the syntax.

I’d heard people describing Swift as “functional,” so when I pulled up my first Swift workspace, I immediately looked for what Swift used for flatmap. I looked for how you split a list into head and tail. I looked for a foldLeft equivalent and immutable collections. Swift didn’t seem to have special handling for any of them. It’s not that a language has to have these to be functional, any more than a language has to have a for loop to be procedural. But if I showed you a new language and said it’s procedural and object oriented, but you have to implement for using if and goto and there’s no class inheritance, you might be…surprised at my feature choices. A “functional” language that can’t split a list into first and “not first” elements trivially and in O(1) time is a very strange functional language.1

Yes, Swift has reduce and map. Yes, it has first-class functions and pattern matching. And yes, these are features that are also commonly found in functional languages. Its syntax even feels very similar to Scala (as soon as I realized that associated values are case classes, everything about them made sense). But it doesn’t think like a functional language. They encourage you to use let wherever possible, but you’re always going to have a mix of let and var in a Swift program, and most of the examples Apple gave included variables. I almost never use mutable variables when I work in Scala. In Haskell, mutable variables are considered advanced features that don’t even show up in intro books.

And that brings us to the real difference. In Swift, you fundamentally work in a procedural/OOP paradigm, and the whole language is built around that. There are some tools available to let you jump over to a functional style (without the full power of functional programming) when it’s useful. In Haskell, you fundamentally work in a functional paradigm. There are some tools available (monads) to let you jump over to a procedural style (without the full power of procedural programming) when it’s useful.

Some might say “Rob, you’re being too literal. Swift is a multi-paradigm language including OOP and functional.” Nonsense. Scala is a multi-paradigm OOP/functional language. When you approach a problem in Scala, you break it into objects that work primarily on immutable data structures. That’s what OOP/functional looks like. They didn’t even bother to provide an immutable list in Swift. It’s not that they can never add it; it’s that it isn’t fundamental to the way Swift works.

Swift is a multi-paradigm, but it’s not OOP/functional. It’s OOP/generic. Generic programming is primarily concerned with general purpose algorithms that can be applied to arbitrary types. It has some similarities with functional programming, and there are certainly languages that are both functional and generic, but generic programming doesn’t care if the algorithms are functions (things that take and return immutable values) or processes (things that mutate state). Swift isn’t generic because it has Array<Int>. You could implement that kind of structure in non-generic languages. Swift is generic because you find generic programming all over the core library. Consider functions like advance:

/// Return the result of moving start by n positions.  If T models
/// RandomAccessIndex, executes in O(1).  Otherwise, executes in
/// O(abs(n)).  If T does not model BidirectionalIndex, requires that n
/// is non-negative.
func advance<T : ForwardIndex>(start: T, n: T.DistanceType) -> T

This is just the kind of function you’d expect in a generic language. It encapsulates an algorithm that will work on anything that implements ForwardIndex. It is not a method that instances of ForwardIndex inherit or must implement. That seems subtle, but is actually a significantly different way of thinking.

You see a lot of these in the Swift standard library, and they’re the ones you would expect to find in a generic language. A lot of things that look like “functional” features are actually just generic algorithms. Look at quickSort and reduce:

func quickSort<C : MutableCollection where C.IndexType : SignedInteger>
  (inout elements: C, range: Range<C.IndexType>,
   less: (C.GeneratorType.Element, C.GeneratorType.Element) -> Bool)

func reduce<S : Sequence, U>(sequence: S, initial: U, combine: (U, S.GeneratorType.Element) -> U) -> U

reduce is a very common functional tool, but it’s right beside quickSort which no functional language would expose this way (it mutates the collection). Both are expressed in a generic style. They’re just algorithms. One happens to mutate, the other doesn’t. What matters is that the algorithm is reusable over many kinds of data, and that’s generic programming. We get some functional features, but it’s a side effect, not the paradigm.

None of this is a critique of Swift. It’s OK that it’s not functional. I would have loved all of Cocoa development to go functional, but just because I enjoy it. I don’t know if it would have furthered the goal of really fantastic iOS and Mac apps, at least in the short term. It’s not that FRP isn’t a good idea. I don’t have a strong opinion on that. It’s just that the learning curve is high for ObjC programmers compared to Swift.2 And we’ll need to integrate Swift with (non-functional) ObjC for a long time.

My hope is that Swift will incorporate more functional features over time. if and switch should return values. I should be able split a list into head and tail in a pattern match (and this should be cheap). Functions should accept a “tail recursive” attribute with mandatory tail-call optimization. Mutating methods should be rare, and immutable data types should be plentiful.

None of these things will make Swift functional by themselves. But enough of them could let us write in more functional patterns, and someday Swift and Cocoa could actually become functional. And if that were the end result, then Swift might be a surprisingly important language and could improve the programming discipline because programmers would have to learn functional programming to develop on a very popular platform. And learning functional programming makes you a better programmer, even if you work in other paradigms.3

Or none of that may happen, and Swift might just be a language for writing really fantastic iOS and Mac apps, and that’s OK, too.

  1. I’m sure that all of these things will turn out to be fairly simple to do in Swift. But they don’t jump out of the docs, and they weren’t even discussed in any of the Swift videos. That’s a measure of what’s important versus what’s possible. They tell you what paradigm you’re in. 

  2. My experience with reactive UI programming in Scala had mixed results. Even with a functional background, I found the learning curve to be high and programs very hard to debug. But it may just require more experience. It seems a great idea, I just don’t know if it really is one. 

  3. I used to ride a motorcycle. When you’re riding a motorcycle, you have to be much more aware than when you drive a car. If you’re not, you’re going to get hurt. But the thing I noticed was that riding a motorcycle made me a better car driver, too. Functional programming is like that. Riding a motorcycle isn’t always the best way to get somewhere, but we’d have better drivers if everyone learned on motorcycles. We’d have better programmers if colleges taught Haskell first and Java later.