There are no class methods in Ruby

01 Feb 2016

I’ve seen a lot of questions about class methods in Ruby lately. What’s the difference between class and instance methods? When should I use them? And my favourite - are class methods evil? There is a lot of conflicting information out there on the interwebs but luckly there is a simple answer for almost every question about class methods Ruby.

There are no class methods in Ruby!

Here’s a typical enterprise scenario:

class ChunkyBacon
  def initialize(flavour)
    @flavour = flavour
  end

  def tastes_like
    "Chunky bacon tastes like #{@flavour}"
  end

  def self.invent(flavour)
    ChunkyBacon.new(flavour)
  end
end

We’ve defined a class ChunkyBacon with three methods. Two of them, :initialize and :tastes_like are instance methods while :invent is a class method. No. Stop! Wait… There are no class methods in Ruby.

“But but..” you protest, “…I see it right there! def self.invent(flavour) ... end.”

Yes, yes I see it too but that ain’t no class method. Let me explain….

Methods always have receivers 1 - the objects that they belong to. When we define a method, we also specify its receiver either implicitly or explicitly. But everything in Ruby is an object. That means classes are objects too.

When defined inside a class declaration, def method_name implicitly sets the receiver as any instance of that class. That’s why we can successfully send :tastes_like to an instance of ChunkyBacon but not ChunkyBacon itself.

ChunkyBacon.respond_to? :tastes_like
# => false

ChunkyBacon.new('pistachio').respond_to? :tastes_like
# => true

The last method :invent however is defined explicitly on self.

“Yes, I know, it’s a class method” you interject.

No, my bacon loving friend, it is not. There are no class methods in Ruby. Don’t beleive me?

Object.methods.grep /methods/
# => [:public_instance_methods, :instance_methods, :private_instance_methods, :protected_instance_methods, :methods, :protected_methods, :singleton_methods, :public_methods, :private_methods]

Ruby has instance methods, singleton methods, public, protected, and private methods. But there are no class methods in Ruby 2. Take away visibility and we are left with just instance and singleton methods.

“But but..”, you protest again. “The ChunkyBacon class has an :invent method that the ChunkyBacon instance doesn’t. That’s a class method! Look!”

ChunkyBacon.methods.sort
# => [... :extend, :invent, :freeze, ...]

ChunkyBacon.invent('strawberry').methods.sort
# => [... :extend, :flavour, :freeze, ...]

Well, that does seem compelling, doesn’t it. But only if we fail to consider Ruby’s method lookup model.

When we send an object a message, Ruby checks to see if that object knows how to respond to it. If it doesn’t, it casades up an object’s ancestors all the way to BasicObject to see if any of those objects knows how to respond. If not, it looks for :method_missing in the first receiving object and if not found, cascades back up until an ancestor responds 3.

It turns out that when we define a method explicity inside a class with def self.method_name we aren’t defining it on the class itself but on its metaclass that lives just above it on the inheritance chain.

ChunkyBacon.singleton_methods
# => [:invent]

These singleton methods aren’t anything special themselves however. Singleton methods are just instance methods of the metaclass.

mummy_bacon = ChunkyBacon
meta_bacon  = ChunkyBacon.singleton_class
yummy_bacon = ChunkyBacon.new 'pineapple'

mummy_bacon.instance_method :invent
# => NameError: undefined method `invent' for class `ChunkyBacon'

yummy_bacon.instance_method :invent
# => NoMethodError: undefined method `instance_method' for #<ChunkyBacon:0x007fe568a61288 @flavour="pineapple">

meta_bacon.instance_method :invent
# => #<UnboundMethod: #<Class:ChunkyBacon>#invent>

So there you go. There are no class methods in Ruby. And there are no singleton methods in Ruby either. All methods are just instance methods that are defined on different objects in inheritance hierachy. Once you grok this, the Ruby object model becomes incredibly simple.


  1. What? You think I forget UnboundMethod. Just try unbound_method.is_a? Method

  2. Module does have the :public_class_method and :private_class_method methods, but if you look at the C code underneath, these methods are actually referencing rb_singleton_class.

  3. BasicObject implements method_missing by raising an NoMethodError.