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Object-oriented Programming Using First-Class Functions in Python

python, functional programming4 min read

When talking about design patterns object-oriented programming (OOP) and functional programming (FP) are considered to be the opposites. FP is characterised by lack of state and immutable data structures while OOP is written using mutable data structures that represent state in programs. This doesn't mean, however, that one cannot use FP to create "data holders" that resemble objects in OOP (as we will show).

Even though Python is optimized for writing imperative programs (i.e., OOP) it works fairly well for FP. It is mainly because Python supports the concept of first-class functions. This allows Pythonistas and Pythoneers to treat functions (with love and gratitude that they deserve) as if they are any other object in Python. This post shows how to write functional Python using first-class functions to bridge the gap between the FP and OOP. To have a better understanding first we need to take a look at first-class functions and lexical closure.

Functions in Python are First-class Citizens

Support of first-class functions means that functions in Python behave like any other object. They can be passed as functional arguments or returned from other functions. Here's an example of a first-class function:

1def first_class_function(arg):
2 def enclosed_function():
3 return arg
4 return enclosed_function

Every time first_class_function gets called it defines a new enclosed_function as it's return value. Since first_class_function returns another function it really is first class.

Note that arg and enclosed_function live only inside the namescope of first_class_function. This means that the two objects can only be used inside our first_class_function! Since these objects coexist in the same namespace it also means that enclosed_function knows what is arg and can use it inside it's own function namescope, this is called lexical closure. Lexical closures capture the local state of functions and represent the ABC of functional programming.

To call enclosed_function you have to first call first_class_function and pass in an argument. This creates a lexical closure and returns a function object called enclosed_function. The returned function object can be directly called with no arguments:

>>> first_class_function("bar")()

Otherwise, it can be assigned to a variable and called later:

>>> foo = first_class_function("bar")
>>> foo()

In the second example, note that foo is a function returned from first_class_function. It is important to realize that the argument "bar" passed in first_class_function now lives inside foo. This means that lexical closures can be used for storing objects inside functions. Object foo behaves like any other (non-anonymous) function in Python, although keep in mind that it was created without the explicit use of def keyword! Finally, we can call foo without arguments and return the value it is storing inside the closure.

Lexical closures are a powerful concept in FP that is commonly used in Python for writing function decorators. For a more detailed introduction to first-class functions head to Dan's post where this topic is addressed in a structured pedagogic way.

Using First-class Functions for Storing States

Let's see how class instances store state inside objects. We will build a class called RoseFlower which keeps the information about the height of a rose flower in centimeters. This class has two instance methods: measure which allows us to measure height of a flower and water which allows us to water our beautiful rose flowers. However, there is a limit to how tall a rose flower can grow. After reaching a limit it stops growing. Here is the code1:

1class RoseFlower:
2 def __init__(self, height):
3 self.height = height
5 def measure(self):
6 return self.height
8 def water(self, water_cups):
9 if (height := self.height + water_cups*0.25) <= (max_height := 50.0):
10 self.height = height
11 else:
12 self.height = max_height

Now, we can create a single rose flower instance and store flower's height inside it. We can also measure the flower's height using the measure method:

>>> red_rose = RoseFlower(12.5)
>>> red_rose.measure()

Otherwise, we can give it one cup of water so that it grows:

>>> red_rose.water(1)
>>> red_rose.measure()

Every time we call water method our instance mutates and it's height attribute changes. If we call water method several times the value of the height attribute increases but the instance keeps the same reference in memory. Let's take a look at the following example2:

>>> white_rose = RoseFlower(16.1)
>>> id(white_rose)
>>> white_rose.water(1)
>>> id(white_rose)

Although this is a simple example of OOP it sums up the process of storing state inside an object and mutating it.

Using first-class functions and lexical closures we can replicate the behaviour of RoseFlower class. Let's take a look at how we can apply FP concepts for the same problem. We will decorate our garden by building a new flower type called TulipFlower:

1def TulipFlower(height):
2 def constructor():
3 return height
4 return constructor

Notice that TulipFlower has the same code as the first_class_function that we've used previously. To create an instance of TulipFlower we can use the following:

>>> orange_tulip = TulipFlower(21.05)
>>> pink_tulip = TulipFlower(10.25)

Because of the lexical closure function objects pink_tulip and orange_tulip store the height argument that was passed to TulipFlower. Namely, we use constructor to "memorize" the value of height.

We would also like to access the value stored inside our new instance. Instead of being lazy and calling tulip objects without arguments to return their height let's build a simple function called measure that does that:

def measure(tulip):
return tulip()
>>> measure(orange_tulip)
>>> measure(pink_tulip)

At this point we can create other functions that will work with tulip objects. Let's make a function which allows us to interact with our beautiful tulips. We will water them and they will grow, but since they are tulips we know that they cannot grow above a certain height. Here is the code1:

1def water(tulip, water_cups):
2 if (height := measure(tulip) + water_cups*0.25) <= (max_height := 50.0):
3 return TulipFlower(height)
4 else:
5 return TulipFlower(max_height)

Now, let's use water function to water our lovely pink_tulip with one cup of water at a time:

>>> pink_tulip_after_1cup = water(pink_tulip, 1)
>>> pink_tulip_after_2cup = water(pink_tulip_after_1cup, 1)
>>> pink_tulip_after_3cup = water(pink_tulip_after_2cup, 1)
>>> pink_tulip_after_4cup = water(pink_tulip_after_3cup, 1)
>>> measure(pink_tulip_after_4cup)

Here you see prototype-based OOP in action! Every time we apply water function it returns a new instance of a tulip flower. This is referred to as the so-called prototype-base OOP (a well-known concept to JavaScript programmers). It means that every time water is called the function takes a prototype object and modifies it in order to create a new instance. We can check this with the id function:

>>> id(pink_tulip)
>>> id(pink_tulip_after_1cup)

We are certain that water function is returning a new object every time it is called because pink_tulip and pink_tulip_after_1cup are not the same object. Notice that cloning an object and modifying it to create a new object is a natural result of using FP.

You might think that calling a function several times and naming it is tedious but it is actually preferred because it protects us from having state variables. This is the reasons why it is easier to keep track of the flow rather than the state in asynchronous programs. We can rewrite the above code in a compact way using Python's support for FP located inside the functools module:

>>> from functools import reduce
>>> pink_tulip_after_4cup = reduce(water, (1,1,1,1), pink_tulip)
>>> measure(pink_tulip_after_4cup)

This is equivalent to:

>>> pink_tulip_after_4cup = water(water(water(water(pink_tulip, 1), 1), 1), 1)
>>> measure(pink_tulip_after_4cup)

As you can see reduce is a valuable tool in the world of FP.


We have introduced the concept of first-class functions and showed that Python has such support. Without lexical closures it would be impossible to do FP because we wouldn't be able to "memorize" information and store it inside functions.

We have implemented a class called RoseFlower using the classical OOP approach. The example was used to demonstrate how state is stored inside objects in OOP and how the objects mutate. Later, we considered the same problem by taking the FP approach. We've implemented a function called TulipFlower and seen that we can use it to create objects and store information in them. However, using the FP approach there was no object mutation and our functions were pure.

I hope that this excesses at least convinced you that OOP and FP are more similar than you thought and (fingers crossed) that it your sparked interest for further exploration of the dazzling world of FP.

  1. Because we're using the walrus operator (:=) this code block is supported only in Python >= 3.8.
  2. The id function will most likely have a different return value in your Python interpreter.