When using types, one often asks the question: when are two types the same? There are many different ways to encode the sameness of two types. In GHC, one of the most common ways is through this data type, defined in Data.Type.Equality:

type (:~:) :: k -> k -> Type
data a :~: b where
  Refl :: a :~: a

I don’t know how to pronounce “(:~:)”, so I’m going to call this the propositional equality data type. Propositional equality is pretty neat. It’s used as a building block in several libraries, including a type-safe cast function in Data.Type.Equality named castWith.

Now let’s suppose we live in the bad timeline where GHC never gained the ability to define GADTs such as (:~:). Bummer. (Yes, I know this is a totally contrived scenario. Just go along with it for now.)

In this timeline, would we have to give up the nice things we had in the other timeline, such as castWith? Perhaps surprisingly, we wouldn’t! There is another way to define an equality data type, called Leibniz equality, that is equivalent in power to propositional equality. In this post, we will explore what Leibniz equality is and how to use it.

What exactly is Leibniz equality?

Leibniz equality is the principle that if two things are indistinguishable in any context, then the things must be the same. This is better known among philosophers as the identity of indiscernibles. Because “identity of indiscernibles” has way too many syllables, someone decided to abbreviate this to “Leibniz’s law”, named after Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz [1].

What does Leibniz’s law look like as code? Here is the basic idea:

type Leibniz :: k -> k -> Type
type Leibniz a b = forall c. c a -> c b

The type Leibniz a b states that for all contexts c, c a must be convertible to c b. From a types-as-propositions perspective, this means that every proposition that is true of a must also be true of b. In other words, a and b are equal. This is perhaps not the first thing you would try when defining your own equality type, but don’t worry—it will become more intuitive as we proceed through the post and provide more examples.

Later on, it will be convenient to have a data type counterpart to the Leibniz type synonym. Let’s define such a data type now:

type (:=) :: k -> k -> Type
newtype a := b = Refl { subst :: forall c. c a -> c b }

From here on out, when I refer to “Leibniz equality”, I’m referring to the (:=) data type.

There are two things worth highlighting about (:=). First, note that we’ve named the record selector subst. This is a deliberate choice: using subst on a value of type a := b is akin to substituting a for b in some context c. We will see several examples of this kind of substitution later in the post.

Second, the name (:=) is quite similar to (:~:) from Data.Type.Equality. Again, this is intentional, as (:=) is intended to be a viable alternative to (:~:). Later, we will show how one can go from (:=) to (:~:) and vice versa.

Credit where credit is due

At this point, I should be clear that I am not the first person to turn Leibniz’s law into code. A version of the (:=) data type appears in the paper “Typing Dynamic Typing” by Baars and Swierstra. Oleg Kiselyov later refined this idea, and Edward Kmett packaged this up as the eq library. For the most part, this post follows the naming conventions established in the eq library.

Leibniz equality basics


So now that we know the definition of Leibniz equality, what can we actually do with it? Let’s start with a simple one: can we prove that a type is equal to itself? That is, can we define a function with this type?

refl :: a := a

We can be pretty sure that we’ll need to use the Refl newtype constructor to construct a value of this type, so let’s start with that:

refl :: a := a
refl = Refl _

The hole _ has type forall c. c a -> c a, so we’re going to need to fill it with a function of some sort. Moreover, it has to work for any possible choice of c. There’s basically only one valid choice here: the id function.

refl :: a := a
refl = Refl id

That’s it! Although this definition is quite small, it plays a key role in making everything work. At its core, Leibniz equality is really just the id function packaged up in a clever way.

Type-safe cast

While refl provides a way to construct Leibniz equality values, we also need a way to use them. A classic use case for equality data types is a type-safe cast function. The Data.Type.Equality module provides such a function named castWith. Let’s try to define the Leibniz counterpart to the castWith [2]:

castWith :: (a := b) -> a -> b

As a first take, let’s introduce the arguments:

castWith :: (a := b) -> a -> b
castWith (Refl aEqualsB) x = _

Here, aEqualsB :: forall c. c a -> c b and x :: a, while our ultimate goal is to fill in the hole _ with something of type b. Squinting at the type of aEqualsB reveals one possible path forward, as aEqualsB converts something of type c a to type c b (for any context c). If we can turn x :: a into something of c a, convert it to type c b, and then turn that into type b, then we’ll be done.

Here’s the tricky part: what do we use for c? The situation now is different from when we were implementing refl. There, we had to produce a value of type forall c. c a -> c a, which meant that we couldn’t know in advance what c was. With castWith, however, we instead have an argument of type forall c. c a -> c b, which means that we can apply the argument to whatever we want. In other words, we can instantiate c to a more specialized type that is better tailored to our particular use case.

In the case of castWith, we need a choice of c that allows us to easily go from type a to c a, as well as from type c b to b. It just so happens that the Identity type is a perfect fit for this situation:

type Identity :: Type -> Type
newtype Identity a = Identity { runIdentity :: a }

If we instantiate c with Identity, then our approach becomes clear. We can go from type a to Identity a via the Identity data constructor, and we can go from type Identity a to a via the runIdentity record selector. What’s more, because Identity is a newtype, there is no additional runtime cost to using it.

Let’s put all of the pieces together and implement castWith:

castWith :: (a := b) -> a -> b
castWith (Refl aEqualsB) x =
  runIdentity (aEqualsB @Identity (Identity x))

Or, if you prefer using record selectors, you can use subst:

castWith :: (a := b) -> a -> b
castWith aEqualsB x =
  runIdentity (subst aEqualsB @Identity (Identity x))

Now we’re done! Note that the use of visible type application in @Identity is not strictly necessary here, as GHC is capable of inferring this type. I’m including it primarily as a reminder of which context c we are picking. This will be helpful as we go and encounter other examples with more interesting choices of c.

There are two other things about the implementation of castWith that are worth highlighting. First, note that if you ignore all of the newtype wrapping and unwrapping, castWith simply applies aEqualsB to x. In other words, a type-safe cast is a very fancy way of applying the id function.

Second, note that the approach we used—figuring out a suitable newtype to instantiate c with—is the same approach that we will use for the remainder of the post. In some ways, using (:=) is like a jigsaw puzzle, but all of the jigsaw pieces are shaped like type contexts.


Equality is an equivalence relation, and Leibniz equality is no exception. We’ve already shown that (:=) is reflexive by implementing refl, so let’s complete the trilogy by showing that it is symmetric and transitive.

Symmetry states that if a equals b, then b also equals a. In terms of code, that looks like this:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)

Given an argument of type a := b, how can we use that to produce a value of type b := a? We can procure a value of type a := a using refl, so if we can somehow turn the first a in that type into a b, then we’ll be finished.

The interesting part is figuring out how to convert only the first a in the type a := a to b. It may be tempting to implement symm like this:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = subst aEqualsB (refl :: a := a)

Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work. This is perhaps easier to see if we use visible type application:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = subst aEqualsB @((:=) a) (refl :: a := a)

We can see here that the choice of context c is ((:=) a). In other words, we are converting something of type a := a to type a := b, which is the opposite order that we want.

Luckily, we can invent a more suitable context without too much trouble. The issue with using ((:=) a as the context was that it gave the wrong order, so what if we used a context that flipped the order around? We’ll call this context Symm:

type Symm :: k -> k -> Type
newtype Symm a b = Symm { unsymm :: b := a }

Symm is a thin wrapper around (:=) that swaps the order in which a and b appear. The order makes all the difference when Symm a is chosen as the context. With Leibniz equality, we can go from Symm a a to Symm a b. If we peel off one layer of newtypes, that is tantamount to going from a := a to b := a.

It’s time to put this idea into practice. We’ll start off with a value of type a := a:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = _ refl

Next, we’ll turn that into something of type Symm a a:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = _ (Symm refl)

Then, we’ll use the argument of type a := b to substitute into the Symm a a value to turn it into something of type Symm a b:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = _ (subst aEqualsB @(Symm a) (Symm refl))

Finally, we’ll unwrap the Symm a b to obtain something of type b := a:

symm :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (b := a)
symm aEqualsB = unsymm (subst aEqualsB @(Symm a) (Symm refl))


To finish our earlier claim that Leibniz equality is an equivalence relation, we need to prove that it is transitive. That is, we need to implement this function:

trans :: forall a b c. (a := b) -> (b := c) -> (a := c)

Although trans has a somewhat hefty type signature, implementing trans is arguably more straightforward than implementing symm. All we need to do is take the argument of type a := b and turn it into type a := c. As luck would have it, the argument of b := c is just what we need to turn the b into a c. Moreover, we can choose ((:=) a) as the context for subst, so we don’t even need an extra newtype!

trans :: forall a b c. (a := b) -> (b := c) -> (a := c)
trans aEqualsB bEqualsC = subst bEqualsC @((:=) a) aEqualsB

Alternatively, one can go the other way around and use the b := c argument to substitute into a := b. This is slightly less direct, as it requires using symm to flip the order of equalities around in various places.

Equivalence of Leibniz and propositional equality

Leibniz equality and propositional equality are equivalent, as one can convert from the former to the latter and vice versa. To demonstrate this, let’s start by showing how to convert a propositional equality value to a Leibniz equality one:

toLeibniz :: forall a b. (a :~: b) -> (a := b)

This direction is fairly simple to implement, as one can just pattern match on the argument of type a :~: b to convince the typechecker that a equals b. At that point, all we need is to produce a value of type a := a, which refl accomplishes [3]:

import Data.Type.Equality as Eq

toLeibniz :: forall a b. (a :~: b) -> (a := b)
toLeibniz Eq.Refl = refl @a

For the other direction, we need to convert from Leibniz to propositional equality:

fromLeibniz :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (a :~: b)

The Eq.Refl constructor gives us a value of type a :~: a. From there, we can substitute the second a for b in that type by way of subst, picking ((:~:) a) as the context:

fromLeibniz :: forall a b. (a := b) -> (a :~: b)
fromLeibniz aEqualsB = subst aEqualsB @((:~:) a) Eq.Refl

Generativity and injectivity

Before we conclude our tour of Leibniz equality, let’s look at a bonus challenge that takes some extra thought to figure out. One unique property of propositional equality in GHC is that it can be decomposed. One can decompose an equality in two different ways. The first way is by decomposing the argument types in an equality between two applications:

inj :: (f a :~: f b) -> (a :~: b)
inj Eq.Refl = Eq.Refl

This works because type constructors are injective in Haskell, so if f a equals f b, then the typechecker can conclude that a equals b [4]. In addition to the argument types, one can also decompose the function types in an equality between two applications. This property is referred to as generativity:

gen :: (f a :~: g a) -> (f :~: g)
gen Eq.Refl = Eq.Refl

GHC’s constraint solver makes it straightforward to implement inj and gen over propositional equality: just pattern match on Eq.Refl. Implementing the same functionality for Leibniz equality, on the other hand, proves to be slightly trickier. To show you what I mean, let’s try implementing a Leibniz version of inj:

injLeibniz :: forall f a b. (f a := f b) -> (a := b)

Reaching into our bag of tricks that we’ve accumulated throughout this post, we can start by using refl :: a := a. At that point, we need to turn the second a in a := a into a b. Unfortunately, the argument we have is not of type a := b, but rather f a := f b. Trying to use that to substitute into a := b simply won’t work.

Another tempting approach is to use refl :: f a := f a instead. That won’t get us any further, however, since all we could do is use the argument to turn it into something of type f a := f b. This is the same type as the argument itself, so that doesn’t get us anywhere.

The problem is that we need to concoct a way to turn f x into x for any x. This was an issue that irked Haskellers trying to use Leibniz equality for many years. An especially high-profile example of this was documented in the 2004 paper Implementing Cut Elimination: A Case Study of Simulating Dependent Types in Haskell.

Luckily, Oleg Kiselyov discovered a solution to this problem: type families. Type families have the power to match on applications of type constructors, and this is exactly the power we need to implement injLeibniz. Here is an example of such a type family:

type ArgOfApp :: j -> k
type family ArgOfApp fa where
  ArgOfApp (f a) = a

ArgOfApp will check if its argument consists of a type constructor applied to an argument, and if so, it will return the argument type. For example, ArgOfApp (Maybe Int) and ArgOfApp [Int] will reduce to Int. On the other hand, ArgOfApp Int will not reduce at all, since Int by itself doesn’t have the right shape.

With ArgOfApp, we can build a newtype that will act as a suitable context for subst:

type InjNewtype :: j -> k -> Type
newtype InjNewtype a fa = InjNewtype { unInjNewtype :: a := ArgOfApp fa }

It is worth spending some time thinking about the definition of this newtype, as it pulls a lot of weight. Because of the use of ArgOfApp fa, if fa is instantiated to be a type constructor application, then the underlying field will be reduced. For instance, let’s suppose we had a value of type InjNewtype a (f a). If we strip off the InjNewtype constructor, we would have something of type a := ArgOfApp (f a), which reduces to a := a. In fewer words: InjNewtype refl has the type InjNewtype a (f a).

InjNewtype is exactly the substitution context we need for injLeibniz. Recall that in injLeibniz, we have an argument of type f a := f b, which limits us to only substituting occurrences of f a. If we have something of type InjNewtype a (f a), then we can convert it to type InjNewtype a (f b). Finally, removing the InjNewtype constructor would give us something of type a := ArgOfApp (f b). This reduces to a := b, the return type of injLeibniz.

Now that we have a better understanding of what role InjNewtype serves, let’s finally use it to implement injLeibniz:

injLeibniz :: forall f a b. (f a := f b) -> (a := b)
injLeibniz faEqualsFb =
  unInjNewtype (subst faEqualsFb @(InjNewtype a)
    (InjNewtype refl :: InjNewtype a (f a)))

And we’re done! It took a surprising amount of preparation to get to this point, but once we applied the key insight involving type families, the rest fell into place pretty naturally. Now that I’ve shown how to implement injLeibniz, see if you can implement a Leibniz version of the gen function from earlier as an exercise.

It’s somewhat interesting that of all the facts about equality that we discussed in this post, only injectivity and generativity require the use of type families. There is probably a deeper, type-theoretic explanation as to why this is the case. That being said, I am definitely not a type theorist, so I’ll defer to more knowledgeable people on this point.

Parting thoughts

In this post, I introduced Leibniz equality, an alternative formulation of equality that does not require the use of GADTs to define or use. Before GHC gained the ability to use GADTs, Leibniz equality was a very popular technique for encoding type equality in Haskell. In modern GHCs, Leibniz equality has fallen out of fashion somewhat, since the propositional equality type (:~:) is arguably more convenient to use. Still, there are some places where Leibniz equality enjoys continued use. For example, the Equality type from the lens library can be thought of as a particular encoding of Leibniz equality with more type parameters.

For the most part, the ideas that I’ve presented in this post are a faithful retelling of the existing Haskell literature about Leibniz equality. (See this section of the post for links to said literature.) In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll explore heterogeneous Leibniz equality, where the kinds of the types being equated are allowed to differ. This form of Leibniz equality is less discussed in the Haskell literature, due in no small part to the fact that it requires modern GHC tricks to even define it.

  1. Yeah, the same Leibniz that discovered calculus. He was also fond of monads, so I’d like to think that if Leibniz were alive today, he’d be a functional programmer. 

  2. This is called coerce in the eq library, but I’ve opted to call it castWith in this post to avoid confusion with the coerce function from Data.Coerce, which is an entirely separate thing. 

  3. I will use Eq.Refl :: a :~: a from here on out to disambiguate it from the Refl constructor for (:=)

  4. GHC has a somewhat unique take on injectivity compared to languages such as Agda and Idris, which do not assume injectivity of unknown type constructors. For more details, see the paper Higher-order Type-level Programming Haskell