Reflection (computer programming)

Reflection (computer programming)

In computer science, reflection is the process by which a computer program can observe (do type introspection) and modify its own structure and behavior at runtime.[1]

In many computer architectures, program instructions are stored as data—hence the distinction between instruction and data is merely a matter of how the information is treated by the computer and programming language. Normally, instructions are executed and data is processed; however, in some languages, programs can also treat instructions as data and therefore make reflective modifications. Reflection is most commonly used in high-level virtual machine programming languages like Smalltalk and scripting languages, and less commonly used in manifestly typed and/or statically typed programming languages such as Java, C, ML or Haskell.


Historical background

Brian Cantwell Smith's 1982 doctoral dissertation[2][3] introduced the notion of computational reflection in programming languages, and the notion of the meta-circular interpreter as a component of 3-Lisp.


Reflection can be used for observing and/or modifying program execution at runtime. A reflection-oriented program component can monitor the execution of an enclosure of code and can modify itself according to a desired goal related to that enclosure. This is typically accomplished by dynamically assigning program code at runtime.

In object oriented programing languages such as Java, reflection allows inspection of classes, interfaces, fields and methods at runtime without knowing the names of the interfaces, fields, methods at compile time. It also allows instantiation of new objects and invocation of methods.

Reflection can also be used to adapt a given program to different situations dynamically. For example, consider an application that uses two different classes X and Y interchangeably to perform similar operations. Without reflection-oriented programming, the application might be hard-coded to call method names of class X and class Y. However, using the reflection-oriented programming paradigm, the application could be designed and written to utilize reflection in order to invoke methods in classes X and Y without hard-coding method names. Reflection-oriented programming almost always requires additional knowledge, framework, relational mapping, and object relevance in order to take advantage of more generic code execution. Hard-coding can be avoided to the extent that reflection-oriented programming is used.

Reflection is also a key strategy for metaprogramming.


A language supporting reflection provides a number of features available at runtime that would otherwise be very obscure to accomplish in a lower-level language. Some of these features are the abilities to:

  • Discover and modify source code constructions (such as code blocks, classes, methods, protocols, etc.) as a first-class object at runtime.
  • Convert a string matching the symbolic name of a class or function into a reference to or invocation of that class or function.
  • Evaluate a string as if it were a source code statement at runtime.
  • Create a new interpreter for the language's bytecode to give a new meaning or purpose for a programming construct.

These features can be implemented in different ways. In MOO, reflection forms a natural part of everyday programming idiom. When verbs (methods) are called, various variables such as verb (the name of the verb being called) and this (the object on which the verb is called) are populated to give the context of the call. Security is typically managed by accessing the caller stack programmatically: Since callers() is a list of the methods by which the current verb was eventually called, performing tests on callers()[1] (the command invoked by the original user) allows the verb to protect itself against unauthorised use.

Compiled languages rely on their runtime system to provide information about the source code. A compiled Objective-C executable, for example, records the names of all methods in a block of the executable, providing a table to correspond these with the underlying methods (or selectors for these methods) compiled into the program. In a compiled language that supports runtime creation of functions, such as Common Lisp, the runtime environment must include a compiler or an interpreter.

Reflection can be implemented for languages not having built-in reflection facilities by using a program transformation system to define automated source code changes.


The following examples show an instance foo of a class Foo being created, and a method hello (or Hello) of the instance being called. For each language, two versions are shown; the first being a call sequence without reflection and the second using reflection to access the class and the method.


Here is an example in C#:

//Without reflection
Foo foo = new Foo();
//With reflection
object foo = Activator.CreateInstance(null, "Foo");
foo.GetType().GetMethod("Hello").Invoke(foo, null);


Here is an example in VB.NET:

'Without reflection
Dim foo As New Foo()
'With reflection
Dim foo = Activator.CreateInstance(Nothing, "Foo")
foo.GetType().GetMethod("Hello").Invoke(foo, Nothing)

Visual Basic

Here is an example in VisualBasic:

'Without reflection
Dim foo As New Foo
'Using variable syntax
Dim foo As New Foo
Microsoft.VisualBasic.CallByName(foo, "Hello", CallType.Method)


Here is an equivalent example in ECMAScript, and therefore works in JavaScript and ActionScript:

// Without reflection
new Foo().hello()
// With reflection
// assuming that Foo resides in this
new this['Foo']()['hello']()
// or without assumption
new (eval('Foo'))()['hello']()


The following is an example in Java using the Java package java.lang.reflect:

// Without reflection
new Foo().hello();
// With reflection
Class<?> cls = Class.forName("Foo");


This Delphi example assumes a TFoo class has been declared in a unit called Unit1:

uses RTTI, Unit1;
procedure WithoutReflection;
  Foo: TFoo;
  Foo := TFoo.Create;
procedure WithReflection;
  RttiContext: TRttiContext;
  RttiType: TRttiInstanceType;
  Foo: TObject;
  RttiType := RttiContext.FindType('Unit1.TFoo') as TRttiInstanceType;
  Foo := RttiType.GetMethod('Create').Invoke(RttiType.MetaclassType, []).AsObject;
    RttiType.GetMethod('Hello').Invoke(Foo, []);


Qt framework extends C++ with its meta-language and provides reflection ability of member/method reference and query by name for Qt objects with QMetaObject class, which contains meta-information about the Qt objects.


The following is an example in Lua

-- without reflection
-- with reflection


The following is an example in Objective-C

// Without reflection
Foo *foo = [[Foo alloc] init];
[foo hello];
// With reflection
Class cls = NSClassFromString(@"Foo");
id foo = [[cls alloc] init];
SEL selector = NSSelectorFromString(@"hello");
[foo performSelector:selector withObject:nil];


Here is an equivalent example in Perl:

# without reflection
my $foo = Foo->new();
# with reflection
my $class  = "Foo";
my $method = "hello";
my $object = $class->new();


Here is an equivalent example in PHP:

// without reflection
$foo = new Foo();
// with reflection
$reflector = new ReflectionClass('Foo');
$foo = $reflector->newInstance();
$hello = $reflector->getMethod('hello');
// using callback
$foo = new Foo();
call_user_func(array($foo, 'hello'));
// using variable variables syntax
$className = 'Foo';
$foo = new $className();
$method = 'hello';


Here is an equivalent example in Python:

# without reflection
# with reflection
getattr(globals()['Foo'](), 'hello')()


Here is an equivalent example in Ruby:

# without reflection
# with reflection


Here is an equivalent example in e:

# without reflection
var foo : Foo = new;
# with reflection


Here is an equivalent example in Smalltalk:

"Without reflection"
Foo new hello
"With reflection"
((Smalltalk at: #Foo) perform: #new) perform: #hello


Here is an equivalent example in Io:

Foo := Object clone do(
    hello := method(
        "Hello" println
#Without reflection
Foo hello
#With reflection
getSlot("Foo") getSlot("hello") call

ActionScript 3.0

Here is an equivalent example in Actionscript:

//Without reflection
var foo:Foo = new Foo();
//With reflection
var cls:Object = getDefinitionByName("Foo");
var foo:Object = new cls();

See also




Further reading

External links

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