Lambda Calculus Part 1: Curry

The lambda calculus is a calculus because describes how to manipulate expressions that describe computations; this makes it distinct from other calculi with which you may be more familiar (the differential calculus describes how to manipulate expressions that represent functions; propositional calculus describes how to manipulate expressions that represent propositions).

The lambda calculus itself essentially a very simple expression-based programming language that consists of exactly three types of expressions:

  1. An identifier reference: a name to identify an abstraction point.
  2. A function definition, which introduces an abstraction.
  3. A function application.

We’ll focus on function definition first, and one particular aspect of function definitions in lambda calculus that can be confusing at first.

A function in lambda calculus is notated like this: λparam.body. This expression defines a function with a single parameter.

This can be a little confusing at first - how useful could a language be if all your functions can only accept a single parameter? The answer is simple: we can create functions that look and behave as if they take multiple parameters. Taking a two parameter function and representing it with 2 one paramter functions is called currying.

Using lambda notation, we can write a curried addition function thus:

λx(λy(x + y))

Simply put, the addition function is a function on one variable: x. This function, when given x returns the function that adds x to y.

Now, let’s translate that into ES6:

let add = x => y => x + y;
add(3)(4); // returns 7

For comparison, here is the equivalent non-curried add():

let add = function(x, y) {
add(3,4); // returns 7

Pretty cool!

Currying is a built-in feature of functional languages; in a language such as Haskell, all functions are curried.

Currying also highlights another important aspect of the lambda calculus: syntactic closure. In the context of programming languages - and in JavaScript - this is also known as lexical scope or lexical binding. This will be the subject of part 2.