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Understanding Java Lambdas

Posted on 2017-04-25

It took me quite some reading and coding to finally understand how Java Lambdas actually work conceptually. Most tutorials and introductions I read follow a top-down approach, starting with use cases and in the end leaving conceptual questions open. In this post I want to offer a bottom-up explanation, deriving the concept of Lambdas from other established Java concepts.

Firstly typing of methods is introduced, which is a prerequisite for supporting methods as first-class citizens. Based on this the concept of Lambdas is presented as an advancement and special case of anonymous class usage. All this is illustrated by the implementation and usage of the higher-order function map.

The primary audience of this post are people who grasp the basics of functional programming and who want to understand how Lambdas fit into the Java language conceptually.

Method types

From Java 8 on methods are first-class citizens. Following the standard definition, a first-class citizen in a programming language is an entity that can be

In Java, every argument, return value or variable is typed, therefore every first-class citizen has to be typed. A type in Java can be one of the following:

Methods are typed via interfaces. They do not implicitely implement certain interfaces, but, when necessary, the Java compiler implicitely checks during compile time if a method conforms to an interface. An example should illustrate this:

class LambdaMap {
    static void oneStringArgumentMethod(String arg) {

Regarding the type of the method oneStringArgumentMethod it is of relevance that the method is static, the return type is void and that it accepts one argument of type String. A static method conforms to an interface that contains a method apply, whose signature in turn conforms to the signature of the static method. An interface matching the method oneStringArgumentMethod therefore must meet the following criteria:

Amongst the interfaces conforming to this criteria, the following one might be the most obvious:

interface OneStringArgumentInterface {
    void apply(String arg);

With the help of this interface the method can assigned to a variable:

OneStringArgumentInterface meth = LambdaMap::oneStringArgumentMethod;

Using interfaces as a types in this way, methods can thus be assigned to variables, passed as parameters and returned from methods:

static OneStringArgumentInterface getWriter() {
    return LambdaMap::oneStringArgumentMethod;

static void write(OneStringArgumentInterface writer, String msg) {

Finally methods are first-class citizens in Java!

Generic method types

As with collections, generics add a lot of power and flexibility to method types. Generic method types make it possible to implement functional algorithms disregarding certain type informations. This ability will be used below in the implementation of the map method.

A generic version of the OneStringArgumentInterface is provided here:

interface OneArgumentInterface<T> {
    void apply(T arg);

The method oneStringArgumentMethod can be assigned to it:

OneArgumentInterface<String> meth = LambdaMap::oneStringArgumentMethod;

Using generic method types one can now implement algorithms in a generic way, as one is used to from collections:

static <T> void applyArgument(OneArgumentInterface<T> meth, T arg) {

The method above does not do anything useful, however it can at least give a first idea how support for methods as first-class citizens can lead to very concise and flexible code:

applyArgument(Lambda::oneStringArgumentMethod, "X");

Implementing map

Amongst higher-order functions, map is a classic. The first argument to map is a function that accepts one argument and returns a value; the second argument is a list of values. map applies the passed function to every item of the passed list and returns a new list with the resulting values. The following snippet from a Python session illustrates its usage very well:

>>> map(math.sqrt, [1, 4, 9, 16])
[1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0]

In the remaining part of this section a Java implementation of this function will be given. Java 8 already offers this functionality via streams. As it mainly serves educational purposes, the implementation given in this section is kept deliberately simple and will be restricted to work on List objects only.

In Java, as opposed to Python, one first has to consider the type of the first argument to map: a method accepting one argument and returning a return value. The argument type and the return type can be different. The following interface fits the purpose, where obviously I denotes the type of the argument (input) and O denotes the type of the return value (output):

interface MapFunction<I, O> {
    O apply(I in);

The implementation of the generic map method itself becomes surprisingly simple and straightforward:

static <I, O> List<O> map(MapFunction<I, O> func, List<I> input) {
    List<O> out = new ArrayList<>();

    for (I in : input) {

    return out;
  1. A new list out is created (holding objects of the O output type).
  2. In a loop over the input list, func is applied to every item of the list. The return value is added to out.
  3. out is returned.

Here is an example of the map method in action:

MapFunction<Integer, Double> func = Math::sqrt;

List<Double> output = map(func, Arrays.asList(1., 4., 9., 16.));

Motivated by the Python one-liner, this can of course be expressed in a more concise way:

System.out.println(map(Math::sqrt, Arrays.asList(1., 4., 9., 16.)));

Well, Java is not Python after all ...

Lambdas, finally!

The inclined reader will have noticed that there has not been any mention of a Lambda yet. That's owing to following a bottom-up approach - however, the foundations are almost set and Lambdas will be introduced in the following section.

The following use case serves as a basis: having a list of doubles denoting circle radiuses, a list of corresponding circle areas has to be obtained. The map method is predestined for this task. The formula for calculating the area of a circle is well known:

A = r2π

A method applying this formula is easily implemented:

static Double circleArea(Double radius) {
    return Math.pow(radius, 2) * Math.PI;

This method can now be used as first argument to the map method:

            Arrays.asList(1., 4., 9., 16.)));

Assuming the method circleArea is only needed this one time, it does not make sense to clutter the class interface with it and to separate its implementation from the one place where it is actually used. A Java best practice is to use an anonymous class in this case. As one can see, this works out well with instantiating an anonymous class that implements the MapFunction interface:

        map(new MapFunction<Double, Double>() {
                public Double apply(Double radius) {
                    return Math.sqrt(radius) * Math.PI;
            Arrays.asList(1., 2., 3., 4.)));

That's looks nifty, however many will consider the functionally equivalent solution below clearer and more readable:

List<Double> out = new ArrayList<>();
for (Double radius : Arrays.asList(1., 2., 3., 4.)) {
    out.add(Math.sqrt(radius) * Math.PI);

Having come thus far, it is finally time use a Lambda expression. The reader should notice how the Lambda can replace the anonymous class presented above:

        map(radius -> { return Math.sqrt(radius) * Math.PI; },
            Arrays.asList(1., 2., 3., 4.)));

That looks concise and clear - note how the Lambda expression lacks any explicit type information. No explicit template instantiation, no method signatures.

A Lambda expression consists of two parts, which are separated by a ->. The first part denotes an argument list, the second part contains the actual implementation.

The Lambda expression serves the exact same purpose as the anonymous class, however it gets rid of lots of boilerplate code that the compiler can infer automatically anyway. Let's compare the two approaches once again and then analyze, what work the compiler takes off the developer's back.

MapFunction<Double, Double> functionLambda =
        radius -> Math.sqrt(radius) * Math.PI;

MapFunction<Double, Double> functionClass =
        new MapFunction<Double, Double>() {
            public Double apply(Double radius) {
                return Math.sqrt(radius) * Math.PI;

This all can be done during compile time, there is no runtime overhead at all.


All in all, the concept of Lambdas in Java is neat. I allows for more concise and clearer code and reliefs the programmer from writing boilerplate code that can be infered by the compiler anyway. It's syntactic sugar, as shown above it's nothing that cannot also be achieved by using anonymous classes. However, I would say it is very sweet syntactic sugar.

On the other hand, Lambdas also allow for code that is much more obfuscated and harder to debug. The Python community realized this long ago - although Python has Lambdas too, it is generally considered bad style to use them extensively (it is not hard to avoid them when nested functions can be used). For Java I would give similar advice. Without doubt there are situations in which the use of Lambdas can lead to significantly shorter and more readable code, mostly in connection with streams. In other situations one is most likely better off if one resorts to more conservative approaches and best practices.


© 2018 Johannes Tax (johannes@johannes.tax)