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Multimethods for Java

Dynamic dispatch is a mechanism for selecting a method based on the
runtime types of the parameters supplied. Java dispatches instance
methods dynamically, using the runtime type of the receiver to choose
the code to invoke and ignoring the types of the other parameters
(just like Python and many other object-oriented languages). This is
called single dispatch. Unfortunately, Java’s dispatching is limited
in two important ways: it doesn’t allow class extensions, and
it doesn’t support multiple dispatch, as implemented in many
other object-oriented languages.

I have written some code which uses reflection and proxy generation to
conveniently implement dynamic multiple dispatch for Java. It uses href=””>C3
linearization to determine the method to invoke. This algorithm
was originally devised for Dylan. You can get the distribution here.

This implementation supports subtyping of both arrays and primitive
Java types such as int, byte,
char, but does not yet support Java 1.5′s generics. The
subtyping relation for arrays and primitive types is based on Java’s
notion of assignability – see the documentation for details.

Here’s a trivial example of using the dynamic dispatch library:


  // define an interface
  public interface NumberPredicate {
      public boolean evaluate(Number n);

  // implement it for some argument types
  public class Exact {
      public boolean evaluate(Float f)  { return false; }
      public boolean evaluate(Double f) { return false; }
      public boolean evaluate(Number n) { return true; }

  // create a dynamic dispatcher
  NumberPredicate exact = (NumberPredicate)
    DynamicDispatch.proxy(NumberPredicate.class, new Exact());

Now, code making use of exact can call the
evaluate method with a Number instance, and
the DynamicDispatch proxy that is backing the
NumberPredicate interface will find the most appropriate
method on Exact to invoke based on the runtime type of
the argument to evaluate. So, for instance:

  exact.evaluate(new Float(12.3)); // returns false.
  exact.evaluate(new Integer(34)); // returns true.

There are several reasons having dynamic dispatch (and multiple
dispatch) is useful when programming for Java:

* If you want to extend an existing set of classes (for instance, to
add an aspect – see below), normally you’d create an interface
encapsulating your new feature, and make all the classes in the set
implement it. If you are not able to modify the classes, one
approach is to create wrapper classes for each, and somehow choose a
wrapper class at runtime based on the type of the object you’re
working with. You might implement this by
myObject.getWrapperClass() – but wait! This makes
getWrapperClass a new method that needs to be added:
precisely the problem you set out originally to solve.

Dynamic (single) dispatch helps you out here by conveniently
automating the required wrapping and method selection.

* You might also want to use multiple dispatch, dispatching on the
types of multiple arguments. Neither the Java language nor the Java
virtual machine supports multiple dispatch. In some cases
overloading suffices, but in many it does not.

Dynamic multiple dispatch reinterprets Java’s notion overloading as
actual multimethod dispatch. Syntactically, you’re writing
overloaded methods – but using DynamicDispatch, the semantics are
those of full multiple-dispatched generic functions.

Dynamic dispatch is useful for adding aspects. For example, you might
use dynamic dispatch to write a Java object pretty printer, or custom
serializer. I’ve employed it for writing a general equality function
which is independent of the object’s own implementation of equals,
which I find useful in unit tests. I’ll write about that in a later

If this kind of thing interests you, MultiJava, a compiler for a multiply-dispatched variant of Java, might be worth a look.

  1. i aml confusing in dynamic dispatch, double dynamic dispatch , multiple dynamic dispatch.Can you explain me in a simple way.(the basic of it with examples.)


    This covers it as well as I am going to be able to

  3. I’m working on an event dispatching mechanism for a event based integration framework written in Java. I would like to do dynamic dispatching in order to allow for developers to define event listeners that accept only selected event types based on the (overloaded) method signatures they provide. Your code looks very promising, but I’m wondering, whether it can be used with my own class hierarchy as it seems to support only primitive types. Do you think it could easily be extended to handle arbitrary types?

    thanks a lot,

  4. There is special handling for java primitive types, but all types are supported.

  5. Have a look at, which creates various classes, and then does dynamic dispatch using them.

    Here is a new version of
    BTW. I don’t think there are any significant changes to the dynamic dispatch code, however.

  6. Hi David,

    thanks a lot for your replies and the link to the new version. I’ll definitely try to integrate your dispatching. Just in case you are interested, I’m working within a research project developing an open source EBI framework for the integration of robotic systems. I’ll post a link here as soon as there is anything presentable available.
    Thanks again.


  7. Jan Schaefer
    on 04/05/08 at 9:38 pm

    Hi again,

    when tinkering with DynamicDispatch I found that inherited methods are not invokable on the generated proxy:



    <p>public class DynamicDispatchTest



    This is a feature we definitely need, so I started to dive into your code a bit deeper. What I came up with so far is, that by changing lines 348 and 349 in file to call Class.getMethods() instead of Class.getDeclaredMethods() inherited methods become callable and the test will run fine:


    <p>public class DynamicDispatch


    <p>//          Method [] procedures = constraint.getDeclaredMethods();
    //          Method [] methods = implementation.getDeclaredMethods();
                Method [] procedures = constraint.getMethods();
                Method [] methods = implementation.getMethods();
                for(int p = 0; p != procedures.length; ++p) {
                        (procedures[p], new Procedure(procedures[p], methods));



    Now I’m wondering whether this might have undesirable side effects. Do you see any problems with the changes I made?

    Thanks once more,

  8. Jan Schaefer
    on 04/05/08 at 9:49 pm

    Oups, for some reason the code blocks were scrambled so I submitted the code samples to pastebin,com.

    The test:

    My changes:

  9. @david: This is awesome! The hyperlink you have here, though,, is dead. :( Care to repost it?


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