This would calculate the factorial of 6, if the "self" was the function itself. Is there something that could allow this?

If[#[[1]] > 0, self[{#[[1]] - 1, #[[2]] #[[1]]}], Print[#[[2]]]] &[{6, 1}]

There is also this function syntax:

Function[x, x If[x > 2, self[x - 1], 1]]

which can also be written using this shorthand syntax:

x \[Function] x If[x > 2, self[x - 1], 1]
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ #0 refers to the pure function itself; you can just use that instead of self in your code above. See under the "Details" heading in the documentation for Slot. $\endgroup$
    – MarcoB
    Oct 5, 2015 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ The answer is #0. Have a look e.g. here. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2015 at 14:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @LeonidShifrin would you mind migrating (copy-paste is fine) your answer there, here? I think it would be valuable to have it on this site. $\endgroup$
    – rcollyer
    Oct 5, 2015 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @rcollyer Yep, why not. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2015 at 14:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The #0 argument does not work if named parameters are used. Is the a way to self reference (without adding a global variable or a module local variable) in this case? $\endgroup$
    – Alan
    Oct 6, 2015 at 18:39

1 Answer 1


Per suggestion of rcollyer, I have moved this answer here, with a few modifications / additions.

Recursive pure functions (#0) seem to be one of the darker corners of the language. They are mentioned in the documentation of Slot. Here I will review the simple uses, and also show a couple of non-trivial examples of their use , where this is really useful (not that they can not be done without this construct).

Simple uses

Here is an example of the factorial, taken from the docs:

factRP = If[#1 == 1, 1, #1 #0[#1 - 1]] &;

factRP /@ Range[5]

(* {1, 2, 6, 24, 120} *)

Here is an example of Fibonacci numbers:

fibRP = If[# == 0 || # == 1, 1, #0[# - 1] + #0[# - 2]] &

fibRP /@ Range[10]

(* {1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89} *)

Obviously, this simple version suffers from the standard issue of overlapping sub-problems and exponential complexity, known for this implementation. We will see how to avoid this via memoization below, in this setting.

A few advanced examples


Here is a simple implementation of MapAll, using only pure functions and usual Map:

mapAll = With[{fn = #}, If[AtomQ[#], fn[#], fn  @ Map[#0, #]] &[#2]] &;

For example:

mapAll[ff, {{a, b}, q[{f, {g, h}}]}]

(* ff[{ff[{ff[a], ff[b]}], ff[q[ff[{ff[f], ff[{ff[g], ff[h]}]}]]]}] *)

which is the same result that MapAll would yield.


In a similar spirit, here is a simple implementation of Flatten (of a single argument), that uses recursive pure function:

flattenSimple = Head[#][If[ListQ[#], Sequence @@ Map[#0, #], #] &[#]] &

For example:

flattenSimple @ {{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, {f, {g, h}}}

(* {a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h} *)

It doesn't go inside non-List heads, which is right:

flattenSimple@{{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, q[{f, {g, h}}]}

(* {a, b, c, d, e, q[{f, {g, h}}]} *)

One can implement a two-argument version of Flatten in a similar way, but it becomes somewhat more complex:

flattenCorePF = 
  If[ListQ[#] && #2 > 0, 
     With[{fn = #0, lev = #2 - 1}, Sequence @@ Map[fn[#, lev] &, #]],
  ] &;

flattenPF = Head[#][flattenCorePF[#, If[Length[{##}] > 1, {##}[[2]] + 1, Infinity]]] &

So that

flattenPF[{{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, {f, {g, h}}}]

(* {a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h} *)

flattenPF[{{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, {f, {g, h}}}, 1]

(* {a, b, c, {d}, e, f, {g, h}} *)

flattenPF[{{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, {f, {g, h}}}, 2]

(* {a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h} *)

flattenPF[{{a, b}, {c, {d}, e}, q[{f, {g, h}}]}]

(* {a, b, c, d, e, q[{f, {g, h}}]} *)

Connected components in a graph

The following is a pretty concise and reasonably fast function to find connected components in a graph, given a list of edges specified as pairs of vertices:

ClearAll[setNew, componentsBFLS];
setNew[x_, x_] := Null;
setNew[lhs_, rhs_]:=lhs:=Function[Null, (#1 := #0[##]); #2, HoldFirst][lhs, rhs];

componentsBFLS[lst_List] := Module[{f}, setNew @@@ Map[f, lst, {2}];
   GatherBy[Tally[Flatten@lst][[All, 1]], f]];

What happens here is that we first map a dummy symbol on each of the vertex numbers, and then set up a way that, given a pair of vertices {f[5],f[10]}, say, then f[5] would evaluate to f[10]. The recursive pure function is used as a path compressor (to set up memoization in such a way that instead of long chains like f[1]=f[3],f[3]=f[4],f[4]=f[2], ..., memoized values get corrected whenever a new "root" of the component is discovered. This gives a significant speed-up. Because we use assignment, we need it to be HoldAll, which makes this construct even more obscure and more attractive ). This function is a result of on and off-line Mathgroup discussion involving Fred Simons, Szabolcs Horvat, DrMajorBob and yours truly. Example:



(* {0.828,{{33686,62711,64315,11760,35384,45604,10212,52552,63986,  
     <<8>>,40962,7294,63002,38018,46533,26503,43515,73143,5932},<<10522>>}} *)

It is certainly much slower than a built-in, but for the size of code, quite fast still IMO.

Recursive Select based on linked lists

Another example: here is a recursive realization of Select, based on linked lists and recursive pure functions:

selLLNaive[x_List, test_] :=
     {#1, If[#2 === {}, {}, #0 @@ #2]},
     If[#2 === {}, {}, #0 @@ #2]] & @@ Fold[{#2, #1} &, {}, Reverse[x]]];

For example,

Block[{$RecursionLimit= Infinity},

(* {0.047,{2,4,6,8,10,12,14,16,18,20,22,24,26,28,30,
  2992,2994,2996,2998,3000}} *)

Lightweight Cases and evaluation control

Here I will illustrate how one can control evaluation and avoid evaluation leaks, if recursive pure function is used as an expression traversal device. For this, I will consider a light-weight version of the Cases function, that would accept an expression and a pattern, and collect all pieces of expression matching the pattern, with the lev. spec {0, Infinity} and the Heads option set to True, while avoiding evaluation leaks.

Here is a possible implementation

With[{u = Unevaluated},
  lightCases[patt_] := 
    If[# === {}, {}, First@#] & @ Last @ Reap[
        If[ ! AtomQ[u @ #], Scan[#0, u @ #, Heads -> True]];
        If[MatchQ[u @ #, patt], Sow[#]];
      ] @ #
    ] &

Here is an example use - find all symbols from which the function itself is built:


   {Function, Function, If, SameQ, Slot, List, List, First, Slot,
    Last, Reap, Function, Null, CompoundExpression, If, Not, AtomQ,
    Unevaluated, Slot, Scan, Slot, Unevaluated, Slot, Rule, Heads, 
    True, If, MatchQ, Unevaluated, Slot, Blank, Symbol, Sow, Slot, 
    Null, HoldAllComplete, Slot}

which is the same list as would be returned by

Cases[lightCases[_Symbol], _Symbol, {0, Infinity}, Heads -> True]

This example illustrates how one can use recursive pure functions to create custom expression traversals and take care of evaluation control for traversed sub-expressions. In both cases of lightCases and built-in Cases, the inner parts of expression in question, which did not match the pattern, were kept unevaluated during the traversal of an expression.

While in the above case, the built-in Cases can be used while being significantly faster, one can use a similar approach to construct completely arbitrary expression - traversing functions. And because these are pure functions, they don't need any explicit memory management (are automatically garbage - collectable), so can be freely passed anywhere - which would not be the case for functions based on DownValues.

So, this is another case where recursive pure functions may provide a feature that is hard to achieve via other mechanisms.

Tail recursion

The above example with recursive Select and linked lists is not properly tail - recursive, and will blow the stack (crash the kernel) for larger lists. This is a general problem, and the fact that one uses pure functions does not avoid that. OTOH, without making a function tail-recursive in the Mathematica sense, one can't use it reliably.

The general problem of tail recursion and optimization of tail calls in the context of Mathematica has been discussed in a few places, e.g. here and here. Leaving the details to those, here is the tail-recursive version for the above example:

selLLTailRec[x_List, test_] :=
    If[Last[#1] === {},
        {#2, First[#1]}, #2],
        (* else *)
        #0[Last[#1], If[TrueQ[test[First[#1]]], {#2, First[#1]}, #2]
  ] &[Fold[{#2, #1} &, {}, Reverse[x]], {}]];

For example,

Block[{$IterationLimit= Infinity},

(* {2.39,{2,4,6,8,10,12,14,16,18,20,22,
        499994,499996,499998,500000}} *)

The reason that linked lists had to be used, is that standard Mathematica lists, being arrays, are not well-suited for recursion for performance reasons.


In a recent post, I have shown how one can use memoization with pure functions. I will give here a constructor for such a function, and explanations can be found in the mentioned post:

SetAttributes[makeMemoPF, HoldFirst];
makeMemoPF[body_, start_: <||>] :=
   Module[{fn = start},Function[If[KeyExistsQ[fn, #], fn[#], fn[#] = body]]]

One thing to note here is that it involves a mutable state, relized as a Module - generated variable. For the case of Fibonacci numbers, it can be used as follows:

Map[makeMemoPF[#0[# - 1] + #0[# - 2], <|0 -> 1, 1 -> 1|>], Range[20]]

(* {1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946} *)

As I mentioned in the post, one of the big advantages of such memoization scheme w.r.t. the standard idiom based on DownValues is the automatic garbage collection.


While interesting, the construct of recursive pure function has not been used extensively, AFAIK. I think, there are a few valid reasons for that, but many of them apply generally to recursive code in Mathematica. In particular:

  • Idiomatic Mathematica programming prefers DownValue - based functions for anything non-trivial. Pure functions are usually created at run-time and serve as a device to specialize generic higher-order functions to a particular task at hand.

  • Recursion is not widely used in Mathematica outside symbolic paradigm, where it is used mostly to write symbolic expression parsers, or economically overload functions to make them polymorphic and reusing some common code.

  • It is hard to make recursive code fast, when it has to operate on large data. Core Mathematica data structures (normal expressions, lists) are based on arrays, and not well-suited for recursion. One can use linked lists, and that is heplful in many cases, but that flies in the face of vectorization - which is one of the main sources of optimizations in Mathematica, so we are left with the top-level code. Although, recursive solutions using linked lists / trees, often are among the fastest for the top-level code, and sometimes are very efficient.

  • Recursive pure functions can not be directly compiled, as far as I know. One can compile them in a way similar to what was shown in this example from the documentation shows (section on "InlineCompiledFunctions" option):

    cFact = Compile[{{x, _Integer}}, If[x == 1, 1, x*cFact[x - 1]],
       {{_cFact, _Integer}}, 
        CompilationOptions -> {"InlineExternalDefinitions" -> True}

    But it has nothing to do with pure functions proper.


Recursive pure functions are an interesting and occasionally useful language feature. One has to worry about the tail calls, however, just as one would for recursive solutions based on DownValues. One can use recursive pure functions with memoization. The factors that limit the usefulness of this construct are mostly not specific to it, but apply to recursive code in Mathematica in general.

Despite this, there are cases, including rather non-trivial ones, where this construct can be quite useful. It is also quite possible that there are some novel and useful applications for this construct, which are not known yet (to me, at least), so it may be a good area for further explorations.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In fact, the implementation for mapAll can be simplified to just mapAll = With[{fn = #}, fn @ Map[#0, #] &[#2]] &, since Map[f, atom] returns atom, where atom is AtomQ object. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2015 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great answer I missed! A related question: is there any short form to self-reference inside function with formal parameters (like Function[{x}, ... ])? $\endgroup$
    – Silvia
    Jul 20, 2020 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Hey @Silvia, long time no see :) Thanks! Incidentally, your vote gave me a Guru badge for this answer :). Re: your question - I am not aware of any such. You probably could write a macro which would rewrite Function with formal parameters into a slot-based one, but that's hardly a solution you are looking for. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2020 at 16:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hi Leonid, thanks for the idea! And congratulations for Guru badge :) Although I haven't been participating the Q/A much recently, I do still check the site every couple of days, because there are always great answers I missed! :) $\endgroup$
    – Silvia
    Jul 21, 2020 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Silvia Thanks :) $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2020 at 17:06

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