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Rust/Haskell: Higher-Kinded Types (HKT)

Rust/Haskell: Higher-Kinded Types (HKT)

A higher kinded type is a concept that reifies a type constructor as an actual type.

A type constructor can be thought of in these analogies:

  • like a function in the type universe
  • as a type with a "hole" in it
  • as a container containing type(s)
  • as a generic type, parameterised over other types
  • as an endofunctor in the category of types

To be able to use them in places where concrete "proper" types are usually expected, a language must support the concept of higher kinded types.

There are 3 keywords in "higher kinded types":

  1. Higher
  2. Kinded
  3. Types


The "higher" prefix is derived from the phrase "higher order". In terms of programming, it usually refers to a function that can at least take other functions as input, or return functions as output. However I think in this case, the prefix has become more general, and refers to a form of recursive containment. Basically it's the idea that a type could contain other types. See concepts like "higher order messages". This makes sense, and seems to define they very concept of type constructors and/or recursive data structures. Here we use the word "contain" to mean parameterisation of things related to itself, and/or returning of things related to itself. Refer to 1st order and 2nd order logic literature for more:


Kinds are the types of types. Most "proper" types have a kind signature of *. But higher order types, or type constructors could have a kind signature of * -> *. The ability of having higher kinds defines a type constructor.


Finally of course I believe this term signifies a reification of our type constructors as a first class type that can be manipulated using the same tools that we manipulate normal * "proper" types.


Haskell has good support for higher kinded types. Every type constructor such as they [] can be used as a "first class type".

This is specifically relevant to typeclasses such as the Functor typeclass.

> :info Functor
class Functor (f :: * -> *) where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
  (GHC.Base.<$) :: a -> f b -> f a
        -- Defined in ‘GHC.Base’
instance Functor Maybe -- Defined in ‘Data.Maybe’
instance Functor (Either a) -- Defined in ‘Data.Either’
instance Functor [] -- Defined in ‘GHC.Base’
instance Functor IO -- Defined in ‘GHC.Base’
instance Functor ((->) r) -- Defined in ‘GHC.Base’
instance Functor ((,) a) -- Defined in ‘GHC.Base’

Each of those instances are implementations of the Functor class for a particular higher kinded type. For example, we see [], which we know is a type constructor but it is also a higher kinded type, since we can use it like a "first class type".


Rust 1.0 currently lacks support for higher kinded types. This doesn't mean it doesn't have container types or type constructors. It certainly does. It just hasn't reified them into a higher kinded type that can be used like a first class citizen. It is however on the roadmap.

Just a note about syntax:

  • trait <-> class
  • impl <-> instance
  • enum/struct <-> data

However there are interesting resources for working around this:

Other reading:

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