What is a Monad? ================Note: this article assumes some familiarity with Haskell.A monad is a monoid in the category of endofunctors. That's usually given as a joke answer, but it's true. And I think it's the proper way to explain what monads are and why they're useful. First, let's go over what a monoid is. A monoid has three components: - A category - An associative binary operation on that category - An "identity value" for the operation The easiest example is addition on the natural numbers. Here, the identity value is 0, because adding 0 to any number does not change it. Also note that addition is an associative operation; that is, (1 + 2) + 3 = 1 + (2 + 3). Similarly, multiplication is a monoid with identity value 1. However, we can easily show that subtraction and division arenotmonoids, because they are not associative: (1 - 2) - 3 ≠ 1 - (2 - 3). Given this definition, we can easily construct our own monoid. For example, our category could be shopping lists, with the identity value being an empty list. Our binary operation will be to take two lists and merge their elements, deleting any duplicate items. You can verify for yourself that this operation is associative. The point is: monoids aren't just a mathematical oddity, they're an abstraction that we can use to our advantage. As an example, we can define a fold function (also known as reduce) on any monoid. Start by setting an "accumulator" variable to monoid's identity value. Then successively apply the monoid operation to the accumulator and each element of the input list. With addition, this yields the sum of the list. With multiplication, it yields the product. And because monoids are associative, fold is "embarassingly parallel:" we can split the list into any number of groups, fold each group in a separate thread, and then fold the results. Now the only missing piece is endofunctors. Once we understand endofunctors, we'll have a complete picture of what a monad is. In category theory, a functor is a mapping from one category to another. For example, when you turn the dial on your stove, you're mapping the category of rotation to the category of heat. An endofunctor is a special case: it's a mapping from a category to itself. Thus, most of the mathematical functions you're familiar with are endofunctors: they map one number to another. Now we can turn to programming. In functional programming, we generally only see one kind of monad: those whose endofunctor's category istypes. In other words, throw out the term "endofunctor," and replace it with "a mapping from one type to another" -- i.e. a (pure) function! So in the context of programming, a monad is just a monoid in the category of functions. So now we have a rough idea of what a monad looks like. It's a category (functions from type A to type B), an operation that composes two such functions, and an identity function. Generally, the tricky part is the composing. We need to take two functions with signature A -> B, and produce a new function with the same signature. Let's make this more concrete by implementing a monad in a language thatisn'tHaskell. Our monad's category will be functions that take an integer and return a pointer to an integer. In Go syntax, that's: func foo(x int) *int We'll compose our functions like so: func compose(f, g func(int) *int) func(int) *int { return func(x int) *int { fx := f(x) if fx == nil { return nil } return g(*fx) } } Now the only thing missing is an identity function. Remember, when we compose some function f with our identity function, the result should be the same as calling f directly. So our identity function is simply: func identity(x int) *int { return &x } So, whatisthis monad we just created? What is it useful for? Well, we can use it to chain together lots of functions that can fail, without having to check for nil over and over again. Instead, our chain will "short circuit" as soon as a function returns nil. Compare: x := foo(123) if x != nil { y := bar(*x) if y != nil { z := baz(*y) } } vs: foobarbaz := compose(foo, compose(bar, baz)) z := foobarbaz(123) In Haskell, this is called the Maybe monad. It comes with some additional type-safety, and it works with any type (not just int), but the basic idea is the same. Other languages, e.g. Rust, often have types like Option that work similarly. There's a particular point that I want to stress here, because it confused my thinking about monads for a long time. When people talk about "the Maybe monad," they're actually referring totwothings working in tandem. First is the Maybedata type, which in Haskell is defined as: data Maybe a = Nothing | Just a Second is the monadinstancethat is defined, somewhat arbitrarily, on this type: instance Monad Maybe where return = Just Nothing >>= _ = Nothing Just a >>= f = f a Do you see why this is arbitrary? This isn't the only monad that can be created from the Maybe data type. For example, we could have made a monad that always returns Nothing. It wouldn't be useful, but it would still qualify as a monad. Or, returning to monoids, consider that both addition and multiplication are monoids for the type Int. If we had to declare instance Monoid Int, which one should we use? The decision would be arbitrary. In practice, you typically start by imagining a useful monad,thenyou define a data type that implements it, not the other way around. For example, what if we want something like Maybe, but with the ability to propagate error values instead of Nothing? By tweaking our definition of Maybe, we could come up with: data Either a b = Left a | Right b instance Monad (Either e) where return = Right Left l >>= _ = Left l Right r >>= k = k r Which is indeed a real monad in the Haskell standard library. (The Go equivalent of Either is (int, error); the Rust equivalent is Result.) Finally: why are monads such a big thing in Haskell, and not any other mainstream language? There are two reasons: first, Haskell is really strict about only allowing pure functions; second, Haskell does not have statements, only expressions. Monads allow you to chain together expressions in a way thatkinda sorta almostfeels like writing imperative code, without side effects or statements. Most languages don'tneedmonads, because they don't have these restrictions. Anyway, now you know: a monad is just a monoid in the category of endofunctors. What's the problem?