Thinking Functionally: Introduction

Now that you have seen some of the power of F# in the "why use F#" series, we're going to step back and look at the fundamentals of functional programming -- what does it really mean to "program functionally", and how this approach is different from object oriented or imperative programming.

Changing the way you think

It is important to understand that functional programming is not just a stylistic difference; it is a completely different way of thinking about programming, in the way that truly object-oriented programming (in Smalltalk say) is also a different way of thinking from a traditional imperative language such as C.

F# does allow non-functional styles, and it is tempting to retain the habits you already are familiar with. You could just use F# in a non-functional way without really changing your mindset, and not realize what you are missing. To get the most out of F#, and to be fluent and comfortable with functional programming in general, it is critical that you think functionally, not imperatively. And that is the goal of this series: to help you understand functional programming in a deep way, and help to change the way you think.

This will be a quite abstract series, although I will use lots of short code examples to demonstrate the points. We will cover the following points:

  • Mathematical functions. The first post introduces the mathematical ideas behind functional languages, and the benefits that come from this approach.
  • Functions and values. The next post introduces functions and values, showing how "values" are different from variables, and why there are similarities between function and simple values.
  • Types. Then we move on to the basic types that work with functions: primitive types such as string and int; the unit type, function types, and generic types.
  • Functions with multiple parameters. Next, I explain the concepts of "currying" and "partial application". This is where your brain can start to hurt, if you are coming from an imperative background!
  • Defining functions. Then some posts devoted to the many different ways to define and combine functions.
  • Function signatures. Then a important post on the critical topic of function signatures: what they mean and how to use them as an aid to understanding.
  • Organizing functions. Once you know how to create functions, how can you organize them to make them available to the rest of your code?

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