Software Development

Object-oriented != imperative

Dear FP community: one of the things I really like about you folks is the rigor you’ve brought to the field of programming language design. Compared to the kind of magical and folklore-based thinking we’ve grown accustomed to in the field of computing, your approach to problems is a massive breath of fresh air. But there’s one area where you guys seem to have fallen into some rather fuzzy and unfounded rhetoric. What I’m taking about is your continued conflation of object orientation with imperative programming.

When we program with classes and objects, we have the choice between expressing ourselves using:

  • mutable objects, or
  • immutable objects.

This is no different to programming using functions, where we have the choice between:

  • impure functions, or
  • pure functions.

The use of mutable objects and impure functions is called imperative programming and is the norm in business and scientific computing. Another way to describe it is “programming with side-effects”. Savvy programmers from both the OO and FP traditions have long understood that side-effects make it more difficult to reason about complex code, and that a design based upon immutable objects and/or pure functions is often superior.

Indeed, I’ve been hearing the advice to prefer immutable objects, and avoid side-effects, for as long as I’ve been programming using object-oriented languages.

Oh, but wait, you might respond: isn’t my point totally specious, when so many of the objects that people actually write in practice are actually mutable? Well, no, I don’t think so. The truth is, that almost as many of the functions that people actually write in practice are impure. Programming with functions, and without objects, does not in itself innoculate us against side-effects. Indeed, the disciplined use of immutability that we see in some parts of the FP community is simply not the norm in business or scientific computing, even in languages which don’t support object orientation. Trust me, the old Fortran code I used to mess about with when I was doing scientific computing work back in university was certainly no more free of side-effects than typical object-oriented code I’ve worked with since.

Perhaps a source of the confusion here is that we say that objects “hold state and behavior”. When some people who aren’t so familiar with OO read this, they imagine that by “state”, we mean mutable state. But that’s not quite right. What this statement is saying is that an object holds references to other objects, along with functions that make use of those references. Thus, we can distinguish one instance of a class from another instance, by the different references (state) it holds. We don’t mean, necessarily that those references are mutable, and, indeed, they’re very often immutable, especially in well-designed code.

“So”, replies my imaginary FP interlocutor, “how then would such an immutable object be any different to a closure?” Well, at some level it’s not any different, and that’s the point! There’s nothing unfunctional about objects! You can think of a class as a function that returns the closure of its own exported nested declarations. (Indeed, this is precisely how we think of a class in Ceylon.)

Among the modern languages, what really distinguishes a language as object-oriented is whether it supports subtype polymorphism (or structural polymorphism, which I consider just a special kind of subtyping). Thus, some languages that people consider “functional” (ML, Haskell) aren’t object-oriented. Others (OCaml, F#) are.

A request: FP folks, please, please improve your use of terminology, because I’ve seen your misuse of the term “object-oriented” creating a lot of confusion in discussions about programming languages.

Reference: Object-oriented != imperative from our JCG partner Gavin King at the Ceylon Team blog blog.
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