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Classes in Lisp: an introduction to CLOS

If you’re coming from the more mainstream OO languages, the Common Lisp Object System (CLOS) might seem a bit alien. This introduction is intended to get you up to speed with the basic principles of object orientation in Lisp.

Object structure 

To see how CLOS differs from your regular OO language, we’ll start with a familiar example and work our way towards the Lisp equivalent. Let’s take a look at this highly sophisticated Player class:

public class Player {

  private String name;
  private Integer hitpoints = 100;

  public Player(String name) {
    this.name = name;

  public String getName() {
    return name;

  public String getHitpoints() {
    return hitpoints;

  public void receiveDamage(Integer damage) {
    hitpoints -= damage;

In Java, and many other languages, methods and properties are put together in the class definition. Lisp takes a different approach, separating the structure (properties) from the functionality (methods) of a class.

Defining a class 

We’ll define a class using the defclass macro. This describes the structure of the class. In essence, it is just a list of properties with some info about how these properties are accessed and initialized. In Lisp, properties are called slots.

(defclass class-name ({superclass-name}*)
  • {superclass-name}* contains the parents of this class. Multiple parents are allowed, we’ll get to that later!
  • {slot-specifier}* contains the list of slots (properties) the class has.
  • [[class option]] is used for some additional info and behaviour. For example, you can add a docstring using :documentation.

Taking our Player example, this is how it would look like in Lisp:

(defclass player ()
    :initarg :name
    :accessor name)
    :initform 100
    :accessor hitpoints))
  (:documentation "A docstring just to show how a class-option looks like"))


The slot specifiers describe the slots: how they’re accessed, their initial value, and so on. This is done using slot options. These are the ones most often used:

  • :initarg allows the slot to be set when constructing a new instance, using the key provided.
  • :initform provides a default value for the slot when no :initarg is used.
  • :accessor combines :reader and :writer. In essence, it is both a getter and a setter. Multiple accessors can be defined for the same slot.

Other slot options exist (:type, :documentation, …). Take a look at the HyperSpec for some more information.

Object instantiation 

You can make an instance of a class using make-instance. This is where the :initargs come into play.

(defvar *p* (make-instance 'player :name "AzureDiamond"))

This will create a player named “AzureDiamond”, with 100 hitpoints. Both slots of the class are defined with an :accessor. This accessor allows the value of the slot to be retrieved. It is also setfable, and thus acts as a setter as well.

CL-USER> (name *p*)

CL-USER> (hitpoints *p*)

CL-USER> (setf (hitpoints *p*) 90)

CL-USER> (hitpoints *p*)

Slot values can be retrieved using slot-value as well. It is, however, considered best practice to define an accessor instead.

CLOS doesn’t provide encapsulation; slots cannot be defined as protected or private. Instead, the programmer decides which accessors are exported in the package definition. Keep in mind that slot-value could still be used.

Some people like to wrap make-instance to define a constructor of some sorts. This allows you to define required parameters. This is just a side note however, and not mandatory at all.

(defun make-player (name)
  (make-instance 'player :name name))

A useful macro worth mentioning is with-accessors. You’ll often find yourself writing code like this:

;; Don't allow negative hitpoints.
(when (minusp (hitpoints player))
  (setf (hitpoints player) 0))

with-accessors prevents the duplication of the accessor calls. The gain isn’t that apparent in such a small example, but it is nice knowing this macro exists for when your’re writing more complex code.

;; Don't allow negative hitpoints.
(with-accessors ((hitpoints hitpoints)) player
  (when (minusp hitpoints)
    (setf hitpoints 0)))

Object behaviour 

Object behaviour is implemented using methods. Methods are concrete implementations of generic functions. Think of a generic function like a blueprint or an interface.

The Lisp version of receiveDamage could look like this:

(defgeneric receive-damage (player damage)
  (:documentation "Applies damage to the player."))

(defmethod receive-damage ((player player) damage)
  (decf (hitpoints player) damage))

;; Usage
CL-USER> (receive-damage *p* 10)

defgeneric is optional. When a defmethod is encountered for which a generic doesn’t exist yet, it will be created implicitly.

Methods look a lot like regular functions. The big difference between the two is that methods specialize their behaviour based on their arguments. This means that when multiple methods are defined for a generic, the one that best matches the given argument will be called.

(defgeneric echo (x))

(defmethod echo ((x))
  (format t "Argument: ~A" x))

CL-USER> (echo 5)
Argument: 5

(defmethod echo ((x integer))
  (format t "Argument is an integer: ~A" x))

;; Because an integer is passed, the more specific method
;; will be called.
CL-USER> (echo 5)
Argument is an integer: 5

Lots of interesting things can be done with methods, such as method combination, but this goes beyond the scope of a simple introduction.


When defining a class using defclass, you can specify a list of parent classes as well. Let’s say we will allow our players to be a mighty Wizard:

(defclass wizard (player)
    :initform 100
    :accessor mana)))

This wizard class now inherits all slots of the parent class. Methods applying to player objects will work for wizards as well. Let’s see it in action:

CL-USER> (defvar *w* (make-instance 'wizard :name "Gandalf"))
#<WIZARD {100297CD03}>

;; Slots are inherited from the parent.
CL-USER> (describe *w*)
#<WIZARD {100297CD03}>

Slots with :INSTANCE allocation:
  NAME                           = "Gandalf"
  HITPOINTS                      = 100
  MANA                           = 100

;; So are the methods.
CL-USER> (hitpoints *w*)

This works as expected; slots and methods that apply to the parent class are inherited by the child.

We can implement receive-damage for our wizard class as well. When we use this method, the method whose arguments best match the given one will be called.

(defmethod receive-damage ((wizard wizard) damage)
  ;; Wizards take extra damage!
  (decf (hitpoints wizard) (* 1.5 damage)))

CL-USER> (receive-damage (make-instance 'wizard) 10)

CL-USER> (receive-damage (make-instance 'player) 10)

Multiple inheritance 

Another intersting and useful feature of CLOS is that is supports multiple inheritance. A class is allowed to have multiple parent classes.

We’ll use an example to make things clear. We want players to be able to be a battlemage, a crossover between a wizard and a warrior.

(defclass warrior (player) ())

(defmethod receive-damage ((warrior warrior) damage)
  ;; Warriors receive reduced damage.
  (decf (hitpoints warrior) (* 0.5 damage)))

;; A battlemage is a hybrid between a wizard and a
;; warrior.
(defclass battlemage (wizard warrior))

Multiple inheritance suffers from the Deadly Diamond of Death problem. Common Lisp provides sensible defaults to tackle this, as well as giving the developer full control on how conflicts should be handled.

The “diamond problem” is an ambiguity that arises when two classes B and C inherit from A, and class D inherits from both B and C. If there is a method in A that B and C have overridden, and D does not override it, then which version of the method does D inherit: that of B, or that of C?

Lisp looks at the order in which the parent classes are listed to decide which one has priority. So for our example, the wizard class takes priority.

;; Both warrior and wizard define a receive-damage method,
;; but because the wizard is listed first as a parent class
;; of the battlemage, this method will be called.
CL-USER> (receive-damage (make-instance 'battlemage) 10)

It can still occur that there is a ‘tie’ between which method should be called. CLOS has well-defined rules for what should happen in these cases. However, it is considered best practice to manually define the order if such a tie can occur. This goes beyond this introduction though.

Further reading 

While I hope this little guide helped you get started with CLOS, you’ll want to go more in-depth eventually. I’ve used the following sources to write this post, I recommend you check them out as well!