Metaprogramming in Ruby: It's All About the Self

After writing my last post on Rails plugin idioms, I realized that Ruby metaprogramming, at its core, is actually quite simple.

It comes down to the fact that all Ruby code is executed code--there is no separate compile or runtime phase. In Ruby, every line of code is executed against a particular self. Consider the following five snippets:

class Person  
  def self.species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end
end

class Person  
  class << self
    def species
      "Homo Sapien"
    end
  end
end

class << Person  
  def species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end
end

Person.instance_eval do  
  def species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end
end

def Person.species  
  "Homo Sapien"
end  

All five of these snippets define a Person.species that returns Homo Sapien. Now consider another set of snippets:

class Person  
  def name
    "Matz"
  end
end

Person.class_eval do  
  def name
    "Matz"
  end
end  

These snippets all define a method called name on the Person class. So Person.new.name will return "Matz". For those familiar with Ruby, this isn't news. When learning about metaprogramming, each of these snippets is presented in isolation: another mechanism for getting methods where they "belong". In fact, however, there is a single unified reason that all of these snippets work the way they do.

First, it is important to understand how Ruby's metaclass works. When you first learn Ruby, you learn about the concept of the class, and that each object in Ruby has one:

class Person  
end

Person.class #=> Class

class Class  
  def loud_name
    "#{name.upcase}!"
  end
end

Person.loud_name #=> "PERSON!"  

Person is an instance of Class, so any methods added to Class are available on Person as well. What they don't tell you, however, is that each object in Ruby also has its own metaclass, a Class that can have methods, but is only attached to the object itself.

matz = Object.new  
def matz.speak  
  "Place your burden to machine's shoulders"
end  

What's going on here is that we're adding the speak method to matz's metaclass, and the matz object inherits from its metaclass and then Object. The reason this is somewhat less clear than ideal is that the metaclass is invisible in Ruby:

matz = Object.new  
def matz.speak  
  "Place your burden to machine's shoulders"
end

matz.class #=> Object  

In fact, matz's "class" is its invisible metaclass. We can even get access to the metaclass:

metaclass = class << matz; self; end  
metaclass.instance_methods.grep(/speak/) #=> ["speak"]  

At this point in other articles on this topic, you're probably struggling to keep all of the details in your head; it seems as though there are so many rules. And what's this class << matz thing anyway?

It turns out that all of these weird rules collapse down into a single concept: control over the self in a given part of the code. Let's go back and take a look at some of the snippets we looked at earlier:

class Person  
  def name
    "Matz"
  end

  self.name #=> "Person"
end  

Here, we are adding the name method to the Person class. Once we say class Person, the self until the end of the block is the Person class itself.

Person.class_eval do  
  def name
    "Matz"
  end

  self.name #=> "Person"
end  

Here, we're doing exactly the same thing: adding the name method to instances of the Person class. In this case, class_eval is setting the self to Person until the end of the block. This is all perfectly straight forward when dealing with classes, but it's equally straight forward when dealing with metaclasses:

def Person.species  
  "Homo Sapien"
end

Person.name #=> "Person"  

As in the matz example earlier, we are defining the species method on Person's metaclass. We have not manipulated self, but you can see using def with an object attaches the method to the object's metaclass.

class Person  
  def self.species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end

  self.name #=> "Person"
end  

Here, we have opened the Person class, setting the self to Person for the duration of the block, as in the example above. However, we are defining a method on Person's metaclass here, since we're defining the method on an object (self). Also, you can see that self.name while inside the person class is identical to Person.name while outside it.

class << Person  
  def species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end

  self.name #=> ""
end  

Ruby provides a syntax for accessing an object's metaclass directly. By doing class << Person, we are setting self to Person's metaclass for the duration of the block. As a result, the species method is added to Person's metaclass, rather than the class itself.

class Person  
  class << self
    def species
      "Homo Sapien"
    end

    self.name #=> ""
  end
end  

Here, we combine several of the techniques. First, we open Person, making self equal to the Person class. Next, we do class << self, making self equal to Person's metaclass. When we then define the species method, it is defined on Person's metaclass.

Person.instance_eval do  
  def species
    "Homo Sapien"
  end

  self.name #=> "Person"
end  

The last case, instanceeval, actually does something interesting. It breaks apart the self into the self that is used to execute methods and the self that is used when new methods are defined. When instanceeval is used, new methods are defined on the metaclass, but the self is the object itself.

In some of these cases, the multiple ways to achieve the same thing arise naturally out of Ruby's semantics. After this explanation, it should be clear that def Person.species, class << Person; def species, and class Person; class << self; def species aren't three ways to achieve the same thing by design, but that they arise out of Ruby's flexibility with regard to specifying what self is at any given point in your program.

On the other hand, class_eval is slightly different. Because it take a block, rather than act as a keyword, it captures the local variables surrounding it. This can provide powerful DSL capabilities, in addition to controlling the self used in a code block. But other than that, they are exactly identical to the other constructs used here.

Finally, instance_eval breaks apart the self into two parts, while also giving you access to local variables defined outside of it.

In the following table, defines a new scope means that code inside the block does not have access to local variables outside of the block.

mechanismmethod resolutionmethod definitionnew scope?
class PersonPersonsameyes
class << PersonPerson's metaclasssameyes
Person.class_evalPersonsameno
Person.instance_evalPersonPerson's metaclassno

Also note that classeval is only available to Modules (note that Class inherits from Module) and is an alias for moduleeval. Additionally, instanceexec, which was added to Ruby in 1.8.7, works exactly like instanceeval, except that it also allows you to send variables into the block.

UPDATE: Thank you to Yugui of the Ruby core team for correcting the original post, which ignored the fact that self is broken into two in the case of instance_eval.