Write Y Combinator to understand recursions better

35 minute read


Argumentation about the necessity to familiarize with fixed points lies between opposite stances:

  • Fixed points topic is part lambda calculus; no real demand to even read about it.
  • Fixed points are required to grasp recursive schemes. And recursive schemes are an essential topic on the FP agenda.

Both make sense. I don’t think somebody can generally be stuck in a career due to “non-knowing recursions.” But still, everyday programming ends up with some recursions sometimes. And better acknowledgment makes life easier.

On my side, I found that I had a lack of naive feeling about what is the fixed point. Initially, I attempted to dive into the matryoshka library. There was not a single attempt but approaching from time to time. And every time, I was scared by the number of prerequisites required to understand the basics.

One of such fundamental conceptions is the Y combinator. There is a vast amount of diverse materials on the topic. And still, I spent a lot of time gathering pieces together. I am sharing my path with the hope that somebody will be able to cut a path.

The agenda for today is:

  • A little bit of theory to (not) understand what is a fixed-point combinator.
  • Attempt to withdraw self-reference from the classic factorial definition.
  • Writing Y Combinator step by step.
  • Writing code you might want to use in real life (no fixed points, just tailRecM from cats).


Further, I’ll be focused on practical aspects. That means writing code as way to build naive understanding. Before doing that, let’s take a look at formal definitions.

Wiki says:

fixed point (also fixpoint or invariant point) of a function is an element that is mapped to itself by the function. That is, c is a fixed point of a function f if c belongs to both the domain and the codomain of f, and f(c) = c.

For example, if f is defined on the real numbers by f(x)=x2-3x+4 then 2 is a fixed point of f, because f(2) = 2.

The next brick is Fixed-point combinator(or Y combinator):

fixed-point combinator is a higher-order function that returns some fixed point of its argument function, if one exists.

And more well-formulated motivation could be found on Rosetta Code page:

In strict functional programming and the lambda calculus, functions (lambda expressions) don’t have state and are only allowed to refer to arguments of enclosing functions. This rules out the usual definition of a recursive function wherein a function is associated with the state of a variable and this variable’s state is used in the body of the function. The Y combinator is itself a stateless function that, when applied to another stateless function, returns a recursive version of the function.


Also, I want to share a couple of resources. You can skip them but I still wanted to make it part of the initial familiarization. Some code transformations could be easier for understanding with those materials in mind.

Let’s code!

Scala nudges us to start from the end. We have the support of recursions and we can just use it. Whether we like it or not, we always refer to our experience. So, I suggest to not deriving anything from scratch, but making a function less recursive. We used to use recursive definitions and now we have a chance to understand the mechanism better.

recursions that we (don’t) know

No surprise, the standard candidate to cope with is factorial. standard_definition.worksheet.sc:

def factorial(x: Int): Int =
  if (x == 0) 1 else x * factorial(x - 1)

An explicit type will help to follow manipulations better. standard_definition_with_explicit_typing.worksheet.sc:

def factorial: Int => Int =
  (x: Int) => if (x == 0) 1 else x * factorial(x - 1)

And before we started to do anything, I want to pay attention to the perception of the recursion itself. Good CS curriculums bring lambda calculus and explain recursion as self-reference that could be expressed by a few manipulations. Those manipulations are required because lambda calculus has a very simple and limited ruleset; self-reference is not part of that limited set. Those who studied recursions in terms of some modern programming language have a chance to perceive any recursion function as something from self-reference paradoxes list. From such a perspective, recursion works like a miracle and it is better to not think a lot about it. The common target of the next steps is to gain a better understanding of the internal structure and stop interpreting recursion as a black box (inside blackbox inside blackbox inside …).

saying goodbye to self-reference

Well, let’s return to factorial and try to withdraw self-reference. Why did we suppose to do that? The experiment there is doing the simplest possible step to not call factorial from factorial. We probably will need to do connections in some different ways after.

I loved the semi-joke by Michael Vanier:

It’s a tried-and-true principle of functional programming that if you don’t know exactly what you want to put somewhere in a piece of code, just abstract it out and make it a parameter of a function.

More precise explanation via lambda calculus

Recursive Lambda Functions the Y-Combinator

Let’s use the idea of a fixed-point function to help solve our addition problem using recursion. We already know how to use a function in lambda calculus: function application. Application involves substituting a function’s bound variables (arguments) with argument expressions and evaluating the function’s body. You can delay this application by wrapping your function in another function. For example, the function

f : a

is equivalent to the following function


where the original function f becomes the argument of a new function application in the body of g — when g is applied, the return value is f a. By using g in place of f* in a recursive function, we can substitute the recursive call with a new function that does not recurse.

Let’s replace factorial call in the body with kernel (it is not a full-featured factorial yet).

(x: Int) => if (x == 0) 1 else x * kernel(x - 1)

And kernel is our parameter now, it takes a number, and returns a number too. factorial_with_kernel.worksheet.sc:

def factorialWithKernel(kernel: Int => Int): Int => Int =
  (x: Int) => if (x == 0) 1 else x * kernel(x - 1)

Well, we produced something. factorialWithKernel is not recursive. Some part of “magic” had been withdrawn though. We decoupled self-reference and now the kernel is not calling kernel. At least, factorialWithKernel simply calls kernel. We don’t know what kernel actually does. I suggest playing around with factorialWithKernel before we start to return magic back. We need to understand what we really want from our “simple” kernel function.

Let’s add more logging

We need more evidence! factorial_with_kernel_logged.worksheet.sc:

def factorialWithKernel(kernel: Int => Int): Int => Int =
  n => {
    if (n == 0) {
      println("returning 1!")
    } else {
      val kernelResult = kernel(n - 1)
      val finalResult = n * kernelResult
      println(s"n[$n] * kernel($n - 1)[$kernelResult] = $finalResult")

what is kernel?

What we can use as the simplest function? The identity function is our friend here.

val `factorialWithKernel(identity)` = factorialWithKernel(identity)

So, what we will have for zero?


Predictalby, (x == 0) condition serves our need and returns 1.

Should anybody care about kernel then?

val `factorialWithKernel(42)`: Int => Int = 
  factorialWithKernel(_ => 42)  
val result0With42Kernel = `factorialWithKernel(42)` apply 0  
println(s"Result for 0 applied to factorialWithKernel(42): $result0With42Kernel") 

factorialWithKernel takes care of the 0 input case and ignores kernel:

returning 1!
Result for 0 applied to factorialWithKernel(42): 1

What about passing non-zero?

val result1With42Kernel = 
  `factorialWithKernel(42)` apply 1  
println(s"Result for 1 applied to factorialWithKernel(42): $result0With42Kernel")

There is no “returning 1!” message and kernel(0) returned 42:

n[1] * kernel(1 - 1)[42] = 42
Result for 1 applied to factorialWithKernel(42): 42

So, calculations are broken. The kernel returns 42 and that’s quite expected. Can we tackle that? What do we want in the 1-as-input case? Unconsciously it seems like we already put most of necessary lines.

  1. We want to decrement 1. Done? n - 1 is there! Done.
  2. We pass decremented value to the kernel of type Int => Int. We did it, 0 is passed!
  3. We want kernel to calculate 1 for 0-input but our kernel is f(x) = 42.

Apparently, we have a problem with kernel. Do we have function that returns 1 for 0-input (f(0) == 1)?

It is scary to say, but factorialWithKernel(42) does it. factorialWithKernel helps to utilize any Int -> Int function, nothing prevents us to give it a try.

val factorialWithDerivedKernel =

factorialWithDerivedKernel apply 1 works good!

returning 1!
n[1] * kernel(1 - 1)[1] = 1

Are we good? No. We need to generate more kernels for different inputs, we still reach 42 at the second iteration.

Let's apply 11 to factorialWithDerivedKernel
n[10] * kernel(10 - 1)[42] = 420
n[11] * kernel(11 - 1)[420] = 4620
Result for 11 applied to factorialWithDerivedKernel: 4620

understanding properties of kernel

Now we understand what we missed once moved to non-recursive factorialWithKernel with kernel parameter. kernel itself is missed! We somehow don’t care about what it particularly does. But still, it should be generated and passed and we barely can do it on our own.

Previously, we already noticed that kernel is something that pitentially could be derived. It hides self-referential structure instead of any particular piece of logic. In practice, we see that result of factorialWithKernel is Int => Int function that does quite the same as kernel itself. We can (and should) use those produced functions as kernels. It sounds recursive too, but it is not a big surprise that we ended up with a demand to turn factorialWithKernel into the function that behaves like kernel (but with allowance to refer to itself).

  1. We have factorialWithKernel that takes kernel. The kernel should be a full-featured factorial function under the hood; reminding us that we use it to calculate the factorial of a decremented number: kernel(x - 1).
  2. It seems like we need some kind of tool that will be able to cook that function for us. On one side, we attempted to pass some dummy values and it almost worked. On another side, even with more manual manipulations, it is not clear how to assemble that recursion-without-recursion function.

Let’s return to point number one. We’re passing the kernel. And we expect as a result is the same function that takes numbers and calculates factorial.

And that is the most mind-blowing thing. We need such kernel that we can pass to factorialWithKernel and receive back the same kernel function. Again, factorialWithKernel(kernel) should be equal to kernel itself.

Equality of functions

Equality of Functions rule.

Two functions are equal if they have the same domain and codomain and their values are the same for all elements of the domain.

An attempt to manually derive the kernel works badly here. It is hard to think about equality once the second function is derived from the first one and that second function can calculate factorial for 1 while the first returns a dummy value. When you do not write the functions down and just explore properties then the kernel is just a function that calculates the factorial of a decremented number. And the same function is returned.

Now, it time to recall fix-points.

fixed point (also fixpoint or invariant point) of a function is an element that is mapped to itself by the function. fixed-point combinator is a higher-order function that returns some fixed point of its argument function.

At that particular moment, things are joining together. We need fixed-point combinator to provide kernel!

It doesn’t clear how it could work. But we can try to move step by step with the hope that iterative updates will work in the end.

Y Combinator

Initial steps

Good. Step number one. Set up the signature. We want to pass our factorialWithKernel and receive simple Int => Int back, let’s just put the appropriate signature.

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = ???

I am replacing Int by generic since it just makes lines shorter.

Now we can start building definition. We need to calculate something, easy step.

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = {  
  val calculated = ???

One more naive step. We should invoke f, aren’t we?

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = {  
  val calculated = f(???) 

And what we can provide? Our attempts to provide some particular value failed previously. At that point, we need to introduce indirect self-reference, which had been withdrawn once we replaced self-reference with the kernel.

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = {  
  val calculated = f(calculated) 

Does it work? No. The compiler says: “Recursive value calculated needs type”. Not a big deal.

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = {  
  val calculated: A => A = f(calculated) 

What now? “Forward reference to value calculated extends over definition of value calculated”. calculated should be calculated first to be passed as an argument for f function that calculates calculated.

We continue to leverage Scala’s strengths. Laziness could help there.

def fix[A](f: (A => A) => (A => A)): A => A = {  
  lazy val calculated: A => A = f(calculated)

It compiles!

Fighting with overflows

val factorial: Int => Int = fix(factorialWithKernel)

Without even running factorial we meet java.lang.StackOverflowError.

The problem here is f. We need to pass an argument to it. That argument needs the result of the evaluation. f: (A => A) => (A => A) has function as argument. And that argument is passed by value. That means we need to calculate our kernel before passing it into factorialWithKernel. It worked well when we passed our _ => 42 and manually derived functions. But it doesn’t work when the orchestrator calls f(calculated) and calculated should be calculated before calling f. f(f(f(f(...)))) can’t reach a point of return to finally pass any argument. Again, we cat try to invoke lazy evaluation. We need to amend the argument of f (which is of type (A => A)) and mark it as the passed-by-name parameter.

def fix[A](f: (=> (A => A)) => (A => A)) = {  
  lazy val calculated: A => A = f(calculated)

Anonymous definition without explicit typing will look as previously:

fix[Int](kernel => x => if (x == 0) 1 else x * kernel(x - 1))

Our functions going to look like this now:

def factorialWithKernelPassedByName(kernel: => (Int => Int)): Int => Int =  
  n => {  
    if (n == 0) {  
      println("returning 1!")  
    } else {  
      val kernelResult = kernel(n - 1)  
      val finalResult = n * kernelResult  
      println(s"n[$n] * kernel($n - 1)[$kernelResult] = $finalResult")  

Finally, it works as expected.

val fixedFactorial: Int => Int = 
Let's apply 11 to fixedFactorial
returning 1!
n[1] * kernel(1 - 1)[1] = 1
n[2] * kernel(2 - 1)[1] = 2
n[3] * kernel(3 - 1)[2] = 6
n[4] * kernel(4 - 1)[6] = 24
n[5] * kernel(5 - 1)[24] = 120
n[6] * kernel(6 - 1)[120] = 720
n[7] * kernel(7 - 1)[720] = 5040
n[8] * kernel(8 - 1)[5040] = 40320
n[9] * kernel(9 - 1)[40320] = 362880
n[10] * kernel(10 - 1)[362880] = 3628800
n[11] * kernel(11 - 1)[3628800] = 39916800
Result for 11 applied to fixedFactorial: 39916800

The fix manages to perform a pseudo-self-reference trick and “exit on time” without cycling. Source code for all the iterations could be found here: fix.sc

Built-in syntax

Explicit notes.

  1. Scala provides native syntax to define a non-recursive function with self-reference
    val factorial: Int => Int = new (Int => Int) { kernel => 
      def apply(n: Int): Int = 
     if (n == 1) 1 else n * kernel.apply(n - 1)  

    So, you create an instance of Int => Int, and implement apply of scala.Function1. kernel there is a self-reference we can use in the definition. You can check out SO: Explicit self-references discussion in case such kind of self-reference require explicit explanation.

And still, in Scala, there is no explicit demand to avoid recursive definitions. The initial function does the same thing and looks neat.

def factorial(x: Int): Int = 
  if (x == 0) 1 else x * factorial(x - 1)

Are we good with it then? No! In both cases, we have the “opportunity” to overflow the stack. Y Combinator doesn’t help with it. In practice, we need to look for ways to write tail recursion. It is easy to rewrite factorial to make it stack-safe.

def factorial(x: Int): BigInt = {  
  def factorialIteration(current: Int, accumulator: BigInt): BigInt =  
    if (current == 0) accumulator  
    else factorialIteration(current - 1, current * accumulator)  
  factorialIteration(x, accumulator = 1)  

Snippets: factorial_tail_rec.worksheet.sc


There is not much sense in having Y Combinator as separate util:

  • Scala has built-in syntax to write functions with explicit self-reference.
  • You are free to write usual recursions.

Diving into Y Combinator is still worth it. It creates patterns that are vital for proceeding with different recursion-related topics like recursive schemes.

Tail recursions and monads

To wrap up the topic I also added directions that happen in real-life coding.

tailRecM and explicit state for each iteration

In real applications, we typically need to handle some IO. cats.FlatMap.tailRecM is our friend there.

def tailRecM[A, B](a: A)(f: A => F[Either[A, B]]): F[B] takes initial argument and function that either calculates accumulator A state or returns B that ends recursion.

Let us have a state with the current number and accumulator. We need it to not play around with tuples and those _1 and _2 properties.

case class FactorialStepState(current: Int, accumulator: BigInt)

And we need an initial state.

object FactorialStepState {  
  val initial: Int => FactorialStepState = 
    x => FactorialStepState(x, 1)  

Now factorial looks like this.

def factorial(x: Int): BigInt =  
  FlatMap[Id].tailRecM[FactorialStepState, BigInt(FactorialStepState.initial(x))(state =>  
  if (state.current == 0) state.accumulator.asRight  
      current = state.current - 1,  
      accumulator = state.current * state.accumulator  

And once the state itself is connected to some particular approach, it is ok to add specific functions to the state class itself.

case class FactorialStepState(current: Int, accumulator: BigInt) {  
  /** Generates state for next iteration (in terms of algorithm that decreases a value on each step)  
    * @return updated state  
  def multiplyAndDecrement: FactorialStepState =  
    this.copy(current = this.current - 1, accumulator = this.current * this.accumulator)  

Now it is simplified. factorial_tailRecM.worksheet.sc:

def factorial(x: Int): BigInt =  
  FlatMap[Id].tailRecM[FactorialStepState, BigInt](FactorialStepState.initial(x))(state =>  
    if (state.current == 0) state.accumulator.asRight 
    else state.multiplyAndDecrement.asLeft  

Often, we can gain more transparency after adding explicit state descriptions. Attempts to give meaningful names and write accurate functions nudge to be very specific. In the factorial case, current and accumulator are just generic names for any kind of folding iteration. So, that’s like using i in while/for loop. It would be better to use anything meaningful. And that’s not easy in our case. There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things. We have some accumulator, it aggregates results of multiplication but there is no specific name for such kind of multiplication. We have “factorial” itself but it is the multiplication of numbers in ascending order. But once we start to care more about transparency, we’re free to change the shape of the algorithm. We can start from 1 and iteratively multiply numbers in ascending order to have meaningful values. number: Int and factorial: BigInt have much more sense, also we can return all calculated factorials together as factorials: Map[Int, BigInt]. Naturally, very mechanical multiplyAndDecrement could be replaced by a high-level nextFactorial function. Now we have a more maintainable and self-descriptive structure

case class Factorials(
  number: Int, 
  factorial: BigInt, 
  factorials: Map[Int, BigInt]
) {  
  /** Generates state for next iteration (in terms of algorithm that increases a value on each step)  
    * @return  
    *   updated state  
  def nextFactorial: Factorials = {  
    val incremented: Int   = this.number + 1  
    val calculated: BigInt = this.factorial * incremented  
    println(s"Factorial for $incremented is $calculated")  
      number = incremented,  
      factorial = calculated,  
      this.factorials + (incremented -> calculated)  
object Factorials {  
  val initial: Factorials = Factorials(0, 1, Map(0 -> 1))  
def factorialsUntil(x: Int): Map[Int, BigInt] =  
  FlatMap[Id].tailRecM[Factorials, Map[Int, BigInt]](Factorials.initial)(state =>  
    if (state.number == x) state.factorials.asRight else state.nextFactorial.asLeft  

The final step is fixed in following snippet: asc_factorial_tailRecM.worksheet.sc

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