Apr 3rd, 2013

S-expressions: Meta-circular

(sexpr  lexer  reader  eval  forms  special-forms  macros  walker  meta-eval)

Yo dawg. I heard you like Lisp, so I wrote Lisp in Lisp, so you can Lisp while you Lisp.

— John McCarthy

Meta-circular evaluator

A meta-circular evaluator is a self-interpreter of a homoiconic language.

A self-interpreter is an interpreter written in the language it implements. Examples of this include js.js or Anthony's amazing PHPPHP. In most languages they are massive, because the languages themselves are massive.

Homoiconicity is another word for "code as data". By treating source code as a data structure, parsing becomes trivial to non-existent. One prominent example of this is XSLT -- an XML program for manipulating XML documents.

Lisp is the homoiconic language, since the entire syntax is based on lists, and macros allow you to manipulate and transform Lisp code.


John McCarthy published an ACM paper in 1960 that was titled Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine, Part I. This introduced not only the Lisp language but also included an implementation of Lisp in Lisp.

In 2001, Paul Graham wrote an article titled The Roots of Lisp, which explains McCarthy's paper in a more modern context and includes a Common Lisp port of McCarthy's original eval.

It's a whopping 62 lines in length:

(defun null. (x)
  (eq x '()))

(defun and. (x y)
  (cond (x (cond (y 't) ('t '())))
        ('t '())))

(defun not. (x)
  (cond (x '())
        ('t 't)))

(defun append. (x y)
  (cond ((null. x) y)
        ('t (cons (car x) (append. (cdr x) y)))))

(defun list. (x y)
  (cons x (cons y '())))

(defun pair. (x y)
  (cond ((and. (null. x) (null. y)) '())
        ((and. (not. (atom x)) (not. (atom y)))
         (cons (list. (car x) (car y))
               (pair. (cdr x) (cdr y))))))

(defun assoc. (x y)
  (cond ((eq (caar y) x) (cadar y))
        ('t (assoc. x (cdr y)))))

(defun eval. (e a)
    ((atom e) (assoc. e a))
    ((atom (car e))
       ((eq (car e) 'quote) (cadr e))
       ((eq (car e) 'atom)  (atom   (eval. (cadr e) a)))
       ((eq (car e) 'eq)    (eq     (eval. (cadr e) a)
                                    (eval. (caddr e) a)))
       ((eq (car e) 'car)   (car    (eval. (cadr e) a)))
       ((eq (car e) 'cdr)   (cdr    (eval. (cadr e) a)))
       ((eq (car e) 'cons)  (cons   (eval. (cadr e) a)
                                    (eval. (caddr e) a)))
       ((eq (car e) 'cond)  (evcon. (cdr e) a))
       ('t (eval. (cons (assoc. (car e) a)
                        (cdr e))
    ((eq (caar e) 'label)
     (eval. (cons (caddar e) (cdr e))
            (cons (list. (cadar e) (car e)) a)))
    ((eq (caar e) 'lambda)
     (eval. (caddar e)
            (append. (pair. (cadar e) (evlis. (cdr e) a))

(defun evcon. (c a)
  (cond ((eval. (caar c) a)
         (eval. (cadar c) a))
        ('t (evcon. (cdr c) a))))

(defun evlis. (m a)
  (cond ((null. m) '())
        ('t (cons (eval.  (car m) a)
                  (evlis. (cdr m) a)))))

Yes. That's all it takes to write Lisp in Lisp.

I'm not going to explain all of the details. I highly recommend you read Roots of Lisp if you're interested.

But how about running this inside of Ilias, the PHP implementation of Lisp covered in previous posts?


The original Lisp consists of seven primitive operators:

  • (quote x): Quotes a value. 'foo is a shortcut for (quote foo).

  • (atom? x): Checks if a value is an atom. (atom? (quote foo)) returns true.

  • (eq? x y): Checks if two values are equal.

  • (car x): Returns the first element of the list x.

  • (cdr x): Returns the rest of the list x (everything but the first element).

  • (cons x y): Constructs a list by prepending x to the list y.

    (cons (quote foo) (quote (bar))) returns the list (foo bar).

  • (cond (p1 e1) ... (pn en)): Conditional execution. Takes a list of pairs.

    The first element of each pair is a predicate, the second is an expression. If the predicate evaluates to true, the expression is evaluated and its return value returned. If the predicate evaluates to false, the next predicate is checked.

    You can think of it as a mix between if and switch.

As it turns out, none of these have been implemented yet in Ilias.

Most of them can easily be implemented as functions that operate on values and arrays:

namespace Igorw\Ilias\Func;

class AtomFunc
    public function __invoke($value)
        return is_string($value);

class CarFunc
    public function __invoke(array $list)
        return array_shift($list);

class CdrFunc
    public function __invoke(array $list)
        return $list;

class ConsFunc
    public function __invoke($value, array $list)
        array_unshift($list, $value);
        return $list;

class EqFunc
    public function __invoke($a, $b)
        return $a === $b;

The remaining two, quote and cond, need to be implemented as special forms. Quote needs to treat its argument's source as data instead of evaluating it. Cond needs to evaluate parts conditionally.

Here is cond, it just loops over the pairs and tests the predicates:

namespace Igorw\Ilias\SpecialOp;

use Igorw\Ilias\Environment;
use Igorw\Ilias\Form\ListForm;

class CondOp implements SpecialOp
    public function evaluate(Environment $env, ListForm $args)
        $pairs = $args->toArray();

        foreach ($pairs as $pair) {
            list($predicate, $trueForm) = $pair->toArray();
            if ($predicate->evaluate($env)) {
                return $trueForm->evaluate($env);

        return null;


Quote is a bit trickier, because there is a design flaw that needs to be fixed first. Currently quoted values contain their values as a form tree.

Basically, '(foo bar) becomes:

new QuoteForm(
    new ListForm([
        new Symbol('foo'),
        new Symbol('bar'),

This makes it really hard to work with as data. It would be a lot easier if it were:

new QuoteForm(['foo', 'bar'])

This requires two changes. For one, the FormTreeBuilder should no longer parse the contents of quote expressions. Next, the MacroOp needs to properly handle quoted values and expand them as needed.

With those two changes, the implementation of quote is a snap:

namespace Igorw\Ilias\SpecialOp;

use Igorw\Ilias\Environment;
use Igorw\Ilias\Form\ListForm;
use Igorw\Ilias\Form\QuoteForm;

class QuoteOp implements SpecialOp
    public function evaluate(Environment $env, ListForm $args)
        list($value) = $args->getAst();
        return $value;

And with that, the seven primitive operators are implemented. After adding them to the Environment, they can be called.

Common Lispisms

Paul Graham uses some Common Lisp specific functions. They are mostly abbreviated versions of list manipulation functions. I will just add them in Lisp directly:

(define caar
  (lambda (l)
    (car (car l))))

(define cadr
  (lambda (l)
    (car (cdr l))))

(define cadar
  (lambda (l)
    (car (cdr (car l)))))

(define caddar
  (lambda (l)
    (car (cdr (cdr (car l))))))

(define caddr
  (lambda (l)
    (car (cdr (cdr l)))))

Running it

Now all of the missing pieces have been added. It should be possible to run eval now!

Let's run a simple cons, to construct a list. The expected output is (foo bar baz):

(cons (quote foo)
      (quote (bar baz))

Here is how you run it through eval. The first argument is the expression to be evaluated, the second argument is the environment, which is empty in this case.

(eval. (quote (cons (quote foo)
                    (quote (bar baz))))
       (quote ()))

And the result is:

['foo', 'bar', 'baz']



It's mind-blowing how little code it takes to write a meta-circular evaluator in Lisp.

It has support not only for primitive list operations like cons but also allows you to define functions, variables, or even implement a meta-meta-circular evaluator inside of it.

Note: I was not able to get recursion via Y combinator to work, so there's probably still some bugs lurking somewhere.

Edit: This is due to McCarthy's eval not supporting lexical closures.

Further reading

(sexpr  lexer  reader  eval  forms  special-forms  macros  walker  meta-eval)

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