The Go Blog

The Laws of Reflection

6 September 2011

Introduction

Reflection in computing is the ability of a program to examine its own structure, particularly through types; it's a form of metaprogramming. It's also a great source of confusion.

In this article we attempt to clarify things by explaining how reflection works in Go. Each language's reflection model is different (and many languages don't support it at all), but this article is about Go, so for the rest of this article the word "reflection" should be taken to mean "reflection in Go".

Types and interfaces

Because reflection builds on the type system, let's start with a refresher about types in Go.

Go is statically typed. Every variable has a static type, that is, exactly one type known and fixed at compile time: int, float32, *MyType, []byte, and so on. If we declare

type MyInt int

var i int
var j MyInt

then i has type int and j has type MyInt. The variables i and j have distinct static types and, although they have the same underlying type, they cannot be assigned to one another without a conversion.

One important category of type is interface types, which represent fixed sets of methods. An interface variable can store any concrete (non-interface) value as long as that value implements the interface's methods. A well-known pair of examples is io.Reader and io.Writer, the types Reader and Writer from the io package:

// Reader is the interface that wraps the basic Read method.
type Reader interface {
    Read(p []byte) (n int, err error)
}

// Writer is the interface that wraps the basic Write method.
type Writer interface {
    Write(p []byte) (n int, err error)
}

Any type that implements a Read (or Write) method with this signature is said to implement io.Reader (or io.Writer). For the purposes of this discussion, that means that a variable of type io.Reader can hold any value whose type has a Read method:

var r io.Reader
r = os.Stdin
r = bufio.NewReader(r)
r = new(bytes.Buffer)
// and so on

It's important to be clear that whatever concrete value r may hold, `r`'s type is always io.Reader: Go is statically typed and the static type of r is io.Reader.

An extremely important example of an interface type is the empty interface:

interface{}

It represents the empty set of methods and is satisfied by any value at all, since any value has zero or more methods.

Some people say that Go's interfaces are dynamically typed, but that is misleading. They are statically typed: a variable of interface type always has the same static type, and even though at run time the value stored in the interface variable may change type, that value will always satisfy the interface.

We need to be precise about all this because reflection and interfaces are closely related.

The representation of an interface

Russ Cox has written a detailed blog post about the representation of interface values in Go. It's not necessary to repeat the full story here, but a simplified summary is in order.

A variable of interface type stores a pair: the concrete value assigned to the variable, and that value's type descriptor. To be more precise, the value is the underlying concrete data item that implements the interface and the type describes the full type of that item. For instance, after

var r io.Reader
tty, err := os.OpenFile("/dev/tty", os.O_RDWR, 0)
if err != nil {
    return nil, err
}
r = tty

r contains, schematically, the (value, type) pair, (tty, *os.File). Notice that the type *os.File implements methods other than Read; even though the interface value provides access only to the Read method, the value inside carries all the type information about that value. That's why we can do things like this:

var w io.Writer
w = r.(io.Writer)

The expression in this assignment is a type assertion; what it asserts is that the item inside r also implements io.Writer, and so we can assign it to w. After the assignment, w will contain the pair (tty, *os.File). That's the same pair as was held in r. The static type of the interface determines what methods may be invoked with an interface variable, even though the concrete value inside may have a larger set of methods.

Continuing, we can do this:

var empty interface{}
empty = w

and our empty interface value empty will again contain that same pair, (tty, *os.File). That's handy: an empty interface can hold any value and contains all the information we could ever need about that value.

(We don't need a type assertion here because it's known statically that w satisfies the empty interface. In the example where we moved a value from a Reader to a Writer, we needed to be explicit and use a type assertion because `Writer`'s methods are not a subset of `Reader`'s.)

One important detail is that the pair inside an interface always has the form (value, concrete type) and cannot have the form (value, interface type). Interfaces do not hold interface values.

Now we're ready to reflect.

The first law of reflection

1. Reflection goes from interface value to reflection object.

At the basic level, reflection is just a mechanism to examine the type and value pair stored inside an interface variable. To get started, there are two types we need to know about in package reflect: Type and Value. Those two types give access to the contents of an interface variable, and two simple functions, called reflect.TypeOf and reflect.ValueOf, retrieve reflect.Type and reflect.Value pieces out of an interface value. (Also, from the reflect.Value it's easy to get to the reflect.Type, but let's keep the Value and Type concepts separate for now.)

Let's start with TypeOf:

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "reflect"
)

func main() {
    var x float64 = 3.4
    fmt.Println("type:", reflect.TypeOf(x))
}

This program prints

type: float64

You might be wondering where the interface is here, since the program looks like it's passing the float64 variable x, not an interface value, to reflect.TypeOf. But it's there; as godoc reports, the signature of reflect.TypeOf includes an empty interface:

// TypeOf returns the reflection Type of the value in the interface{}.
func TypeOf(i interface{}) Type

When we call reflect.TypeOf(x), x is first stored in an empty interface, which is then passed as the argument; reflect.TypeOf unpacks that empty interface to recover the type information.

The reflect.ValueOf function, of course, recovers the value (from here on we'll elide the boilerplate and focus just on the executable code):

var x float64 = 3.4
fmt.Println("value:", reflect.ValueOf(x))

prints

value: <float64 Value>

Both reflect.Type and reflect.Value have lots of methods to let us examine and manipulate them. One important example is that Value has a Type method that returns the Type of a reflect.Value. Another is that both Type and Value have a Kind method that returns a constant indicating what sort of item is stored: Uint, Float64, Slice, and so on. Also methods on Value with names like Int and Float let us grab values (as int64 and float64) stored inside:

var x float64 = 3.4
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)
fmt.Println("type:", v.Type())
fmt.Println("kind is float64:", v.Kind() == reflect.Float64)
fmt.Println("value:", v.Float())

prints

type: float64
kind is float64: true
value: 3.4

There are also methods like SetInt and SetFloat but to use them we need to understand settability, the subject of the third law of reflection, discussed below.

The reflection library has a couple of properties worth singling out. First, to keep the API simple, the "getter" and "setter" methods of Value operate on the largest type that can hold the value: int64 for all the signed integers, for instance. That is, the Int method of Value returns an int64 and the SetInt value takes an int64; it may be necessary to convert to the actual type involved:

var x uint8 = 'x'
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)
fmt.Println("type:", v.Type())                            // uint8.
fmt.Println("kind is uint8: ", v.Kind() == reflect.Uint8) // true.
x = uint8(v.Uint())                                       // v.Uint returns a uint64.

The second property is that the Kind of a reflection object describes the underlying type, not the static type. If a reflection object contains a value of a user-defined integer type, as in

type MyInt int
var x MyInt = 7
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)

the Kind of v is still reflect.Int, even though the static type of x is MyInt, not int. In other words, the Kind cannot discriminate an int from a MyInt even though the Type can.

The second law of reflection

2. Reflection goes from reflection object to interface value.

Like physical reflection, reflection in Go generates its own inverse.

Given a reflect.Value we can recover an interface value using the Interface method; in effect the method packs the type and value information back into an interface representation and returns the result:

// Interface returns v's value as an interface{}.
func (v Value) Interface() interface{}

As a consequence we can say

y := v.Interface().(float64) // y will have type float64.
fmt.Println(y)

to print the float64 value represented by the reflection object v.

We can do even better, though. The arguments to fmt.Println, fmt.Printf and so on are all passed as empty interface values, which are then unpacked by the fmt package internally just as we have been doing in the previous examples. Therefore all it takes to print the contents of a reflect.Value correctly is to pass the result of the Interface method to the formatted print routine:

fmt.Println(v.Interface())

(Why not fmt.Println(v)? Because v is a reflect.Value; we want the concrete value it holds.) Since our value is a float64, we can even use a floating-point format if we want:

fmt.Printf("value is %7.1e\n", v.Interface())

and get in this case

3.4e+00

Again, there's no need to type-assert the result of v.Interface() to float64; the empty interface value has the concrete value's type information inside and Printf will recover it.

In short, the Interface method is the inverse of the ValueOf function, except that its result is always of static type interface{}.

Reiterating: Reflection goes from interface values to reflection objects and back again.

The third law of reflection

3. To modify a reflection object, the value must be settable.

The third law is the most subtle and confusing, but it's easy enough to understand if we start from first principles.

Here is some code that does not work, but is worth studying.

var x float64 = 3.4
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)
v.SetFloat(7.1) // Error: will panic.

If you run this code, it will panic with the cryptic message

panic: reflect.Value.SetFloat using unaddressable value

The problem is not that the value 7.1 is not addressable; it's that v is not settable. Settability is a property of a reflection Value, and not all reflection Values have it.

The CanSet method of Value reports the settability of a Value; in our case,

var x float64 = 3.4
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)
fmt.Println("settability of v:", v.CanSet())

prints

settability of v: false

It is an error to call a Set method on an non-settable Value. But what is settability?

Settability is a bit like addressability, but stricter. It's the property that a reflection object can modify the actual storage that was used to create the reflection object. Settability is determined by whether the reflection object holds the original item. When we say

var x float64 = 3.4
v := reflect.ValueOf(x)

we pass a copy of x to reflect.ValueOf, so the interface value created as the argument to reflect.ValueOf is a copy of x, not x itself. Thus, if the statement

v.SetFloat(7.1)

were allowed to succeed, it would not update x, even though v looks like it was created from x. Instead, it would update the copy of x stored inside the reflection value and x itself would be unaffected. That would be confusing and useless, so it is illegal, and settability is the property used to avoid this issue.

If this seems bizarre, it's not. It's actually a familiar situation in unusual garb. Think of passing x to a function:

f(x)

We would not expect f to be able to modify x because we passed a copy of `x`'s value, not x itself. If we want f to modify x directly we must pass our function the address of x (that is, a pointer to x):

f(&x)

This is straightforward and familiar, and reflection works the same way. If we want to modify x by reflection, we must give the reflection library a pointer to the value we want to modify.

Let's do that. First we initialize x as usual and then create a reflection value that points to it, called p.

var x float64 = 3.4
p := reflect.ValueOf(&x) // Note: take the address of x.
fmt.Println("type of p:", p.Type())
fmt.Println("settability of p:", p.CanSet())

The output so far is

type of p: *float64
settability of p: false

The reflection object p isn't settable, but it's not p we want to set, it's (in effect) *p. To get to what p points to, we call the Elem method of Value, which indirects through the pointer, and save the result in a reflection Value called v:

v := p.Elem()
fmt.Println("settability of v:", v.CanSet())

Now v is a settable reflection object, as the output demonstrates,

settability of v: true

and since it represents x, we are finally able to use v.SetFloat to modify the value of x:

v.SetFloat(7.1)
fmt.Println(v.Interface())
fmt.Println(x)

The output, as expected, is

7.1
7.1

Reflection can be hard to understand but it's doing exactly what the language does, albeit through reflection Types and Values that can disguise what's going on. Just keep in mind that reflection Values need the address of something in order to modify what they represent.

Structs

In our previous example v wasn't a pointer itself, it was just derived from one. A common way for this situation to arise is when using reflection to modify the fields of a structure. As long as we have the address of the structure, we can modify its fields.

Here's a simple example that analyzes a struct value, t. We create the reflection object with the address of the struct because we'll want to modify it later. Then we set typeOfT to its type and iterate over the fields using straightforward method calls (see package reflect for details). Note that we extract the names of the fields from the struct type, but the fields themselves are regular reflect.Value objects.

type T struct {
    A int
    B string
}
t := T{23, "skidoo"}
s := reflect.ValueOf(&t).Elem()
typeOfT := s.Type()
for i := 0; i < s.NumField(); i++ {
    f := s.Field(i)
    fmt.Printf("%d: %s %s = %v\n", i,
        typeOfT.Field(i).Name, f.Type(), f.Interface())
}

The output of this program is

0: A int = 23
1: B string = skidoo

There's one more point about settability introduced in passing here: the field names of T are upper case (exported) because only exported fields of a struct are settable.

Because s contains a settable reflection object, we can modify the fields of the structure.

s.Field(0).SetInt(77)
s.Field(1).SetString("Sunset Strip")
fmt.Println("t is now", t)

And here's the result:

t is now {77 Sunset Strip}

If we modified the program so that s was created from t, not &t, the calls to SetInt and SetString would fail as the fields of t would not be settable.

Conclusion

Here again are the laws of reflection:

  • Reflection goes from interface value to reflection object.
  • Reflection goes from reflection object to interface value.
  • To modify a reflection object, the value must be settable.

Once you understand these laws reflection in Go becomes much easier to use, although it remains subtle. It's a powerful tool that should be used with care and avoided unless strictly necessary.

There's plenty more to reflection that we haven't covered — sending and receiving on channels, allocating memory, using slices and maps, calling methods and functions — but this post is long enough. We'll cover some of those topics in a later article.

By Rob Pike

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