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Joshua Bradley
Joshua Bradley

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Understanding the Power of LISP

Paul Graham describes LISP as the convergence point for all programming languages. His observation is that as languages mature, the average language continues to slide towards LISP. Therefore understanding LISP is to understand the fundamental model of modern programming.

Others tout LISP as necessary to becoming a better programmer. Eric Raymond went so far as to say that understanding LISP is a "profound enlightenment experience."

In search of this understanding, I went to the source. John McCarthy's original paper Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine that laid the foundation for LISP.

It is a dense, exploratory paper written by a genius for early computer scientists. Not a digestible piece of documentation meant to guide others to understanding LISP. I struggled through each sentence before stumbling upon Paul Graham's article The Roots of LISP. His clarity helped guide me to that elusive sense of understanding.

But it wasn't until I wrote this article that I gained a full grasp of the language and its power. I'm leaving my steps here for any who have gone down a similar path and still struggle to understand.

Keeping true to Paul Graham, I implemented this version of LISP in Arc. You can find the full code here.

List expressions

Originally, John McCarthy had defined symbolic expressions (S-expressions) and meta expressions (M-expressions). S-expressions were to contain lists of symbols, while M-expressions were to denote functions.

; S-expression
((ab . c) . d . nil)

; M-expression
eq[x; x]
; returns t

However, the computer they used to first implement LISP was missing square brackets, so everything was written in S-expression notation.1 Dots were omitted and the nil that terminates lists is assumed.

So the above M-expression becomes

(eq x x)
; returns t

which became the standard syntax for LISP, making the language syntactically uniform.

Elementary functions

There are very few elementary functions necessary to make LISP a complete language. Many complexities, such as memory allocation and garbage collection, are handled by the compiler.

A brief introduction to the syntax of LISP is helpful because some aspects are not intuitive. In particular, quotes and inside-out evaluation.

Quotes are necessary for LISP because there is no separation of data and code. Sequences of characters can be interpreted as variables or values depending on their context. Quoting characters solves this by forcing a literal interpretation of values.

Without quote, (eq x x) will attempt to find the defined value of x and throw an error if not found. While (eq 'x 'x) returns t. Keep in mind this is shorthand for (eq (quote x) (quote x)).

Inside-out interpretation feels very unnatural because we are trained to read left-to-right, even in programming languages. When reading expressions such as (outer (inner '(a b))) you might expect outer to be evaluated first. However, inner will be the first to evaluate.

Armed with this basic understanding, you're ready for the 5 elementary functions necessary for LISP.


Checks if an element is a single symbol.

(atom 'x)
; returns t

(atom '(a b))
; returns nil


Checks if two atomic symbols are the same. In Arc, this is written as is.

(eq 'x 'x)
; returns t

(eq 'x 'y)
; returns nil

(eq '(a b) '(a b))
; (a b) is a list and cannot be evaluated by eq
; returns nil


Stands for contents of the address register. It returns the first item in a list, as long as it isn't atomic.

(car '(x a))
; returns x

(car '((x a) y))
; returns (x a)


Stands for contents of the decrement register. It returns everything after the first item in a list.

(cdr '(x a))
; returns a

(cdr '((x a) y))
; returns y

(cdr '((x a) (y b)))
; returns (y b)


Is used to construct a list from atoms or other lists.

(cons 'x 'a)
; returns (x . a)
; lists should typically end in nil
; so it is better to write (cons x (cons a nil))
; which returns (x . a . nil)
; and can be written as (x a)

(cons '(x a) 'y)
; returns ((x a) . y)

(cons '(x a) '(y b))
; returns ((x a) y b)

Foundational functions

These functions form the core of the "universal function" which is the ultimate end of this implementation.

Because I am implementing this in Arc, I will be moving away from John McCarthy's use of = to define functions and [condition -> expression; T -> expression] syntax for if...else conditions. Instead, I will use def and if as defined in Arc.

Other differences include using is for eq and I will prefix all functions with _ to avoid conflicts with existing functions. Additionally, t represents truth and nil represents falsity.

If you have trouble following the syntax, I suggest reading Paul Graham's Arc tutorial first.


Evaluates if the expression is empty.

(def _null (x)
  (is x nil))

(_null nil)
; returns t

(_null '(x a))
; returns nil


Evaluates if both conditions are true. In Arc, t represents true, and nil represents false.

(def _and (x y)
  (if (is x t) (is y t) t nil))

(_and 'x 'y)
; returns t

(_and 'x nil)
; returns nil


Evaluates if the condition is nil.

(def _not (x)
  (if (is x nil) t))

(_not nil)
; returns t

(_not 'x)
; returns nil

_caar, _cadr, _caddr, _cadar, and _caddar

These are shorthand for combinations of car and cdr. They occur often so the shorthand keeps your code DRY.

(def _caar (x)
  (car (car x)))

(def _cadr (x)
  (car (cdr x)))

(def _cadar (x)
  (car (cdr (car x))))

(def _caddr (x)
  (car (cdr (cdr x))))

(def _caddar (x)
  (car (cdr (cdr (car x)))))

(_cadr '(a b c d))
; returns b

(_caddr '(a b c d))
; returns c

(_cadar '((a b c d) (e f g)))
; returns b

(_caddar '((a b c d) (e f g)))
; returns c


Allows you to join lists.

(def _append (x y)
  (if (_null x) y (cons (car x) (_append (cdr x) y))))

(_append '(a b) '(c d))
; returns (a b c d)


Creates a list from two expressions. The distinction between this and cons is that _list will append nil for you.

This maintains the integrity of lists that you pass as arguments and removes the need for an additional cons when joining two atoms.

(def _list (x y)
  (cons x (cons y nil)))

(_list 'a 'b)
; returns (a b)

(_list '(a b) '(c d))
; returns ((a b) (c d))


Joins two lists creating pairs based on the position of each element.

(def _pair (x y)
  (if (_and (_null x) (_null y)) nil
      (_and (_not (atom x)) (_not (atom y)))
      (cons (_list (car x) (car y))
            (_pair (cdr x) (cdr y)))))

(_pair '(x y z) '(a b c))
; returns ((x a) (y b) (z c))


Gets values from key-value pairs, where the first argument is the key and the second argument is a list of pairs.

(def _assoc (x y)
  (if (is (caar y) x) (_cadar y)
    (_assoc x (cdr y))))

(_assoc 'y '((x a) (y b)))
; returns b

(_assoc 'x '((w (a b)) (x (c d)) (y (e f))))
; returns (c d)

The universal function

The true power of LISP is its ability to evaluate itself from a few building blocks. As John McCarthy did, we will be defining _eval which can evaluate LISP in LISP.

This is the most surprising and powerful aspect of the language. With 5 primitives and 12 functions, you have the building blocks to build an interpreter.

(def _eval (e a)
    (atom e) (_assoc e a)
    (atom (car e)) (if
      (is (car e) 'quote) (_cadr e)
      (is (car e) 'atom)  (atom (_eval (_cadr  e) a))
      (is (car e) 'eq)    (is   (_eval (_cadr  e) a)
                                (_eval (_caddr e) a))
      (is (car e) 'car)   (car  (_eval (_cadr  e) a))
      (is (car e) 'cdr)   (cdr  (_eval (_cadr  e) a))
      (is (car e) 'cons)  (cons (_eval (_cadr  e) a)
                                (_eval (_caddr e) a))
      (is (car e) 'cond)  (_evcon (cdr e) a)
      (_eval (cons (_assoc (car e) a)
                   (cdr e))
    (is (caar e) 'label)
      (_eval (cons (_caddar e) (cdr e))
             (cons (_list (_cadar e) (car e)) a))
    (is (caar e) 'lambda)
      (_eval (_caddar e)
             (_append (_pair (_cadar e) (_evlis (cdr e) a))

(def _evcon (c a)
  (if (_eval (_caar c) a)
      (_eval (_cadar c) a)
      (_evcon (cdr c) a)))

(def _evlis (m a)
  (if (_null m) nil
      (cons (_eval  (car m) a)
            (_evlis (cdr m) a))))

When using _eval the syntax of the contained expressions will be specific to the interpreter. We aren't writing in Arc anymore, but a completely new language. The primitive form of LISP.

Even if you have been following along, there is a lot to break down here, so let's step through it.

Interpreting elementary functions

_eval takes e as the expression to be evaluated and a as a list of pairs that will be referenced by e.

If e is atomic _assoc is called to return the value that matches the key e in a.

(_eval 'x '((x a) (y b)))
; returns a

(_eval 'y '((x a) (y b)))
; returns b

If e is not atomic, then _eval checks if the first element of e is one of the elementary functions.

In the case of quote the symbol following quote is returned literally.

(_eval '(quote x) nil)
; nil is needed because _eval requires two arguments
; returns x

(_eval '(quote (x a)) nil)
; returns (x a)

With other elementary functions, e takes the form (function key), where key is used to get a value from a that will be evaluated by function.

The following use of _eval is equivalent to the much simpler (atom 'y) but it is core to understanding the _eval function. Notice how x is being used to reference the value in the second parameter, a.

(_eval '(atom x) '((x y)))
; returns t

(_eval '(atom x) '((x (a b))))
; returns nil

For every elementary function except quote there are recursive _eval calls being made until it reaches _assoc or quote.

These are the steps _eval takes to evaluate atom.

(_eval '(atom x) '((x y)))
; (atom (_eval (_cadr e) a))
; (atom (_eval  x ((x y))))
; (atom (_assoc x ((x y))))
; (atom y)
; returns t

car and cdr have a very similar structure to atom because only one expression has to be evaluated.

(_eval '(car x) '((x (a b c))))
; returns a

(_eval '(cdr x) '((x (a b c))))
; returns (b c)

cons and eq have two expressions that need to be evaluated. As such, a needs to contain two pairs.

(_eval '(eq x y) '((x a) (y a)))
; returns t

(_eval '(cons x y) '((x a) (y b)))
; returns (a . b)

cond makes use of a new function, _evcon which takes a list of pairs with the format (condition expression). When a true condition is found, that expression is evaluated.

(def _evcon (c a)
  (if (_eval (_caar c) a)
      (_eval (_cadar c) a)
      (_evcon (cdr c) a)))

(_evcon '(((atom c1) a1) ((atom c2) a2) ((atom c3) a3))
        '((c1 (a b)) (a1 not_atom)
          (c2 (c d)) (a2 still_not_atom)
          (c3 e)     (a3 is_atom)))
; returns is_atom

Here is the same expression using _eval.

(_eval '(cond ((atom c1) a1) ((atom c2) a2) ((atom c3) a3))
       '((c1 (a b)) (a1 not_atom)
         (c2 (c d)) (a2 still_not_atom)
         (c3 e)     (a3 is_atom)))
; returns is_atom

Interpreting label and lambda functions

If e is atomic but isn't an elementary function, it must be a label or lambda function defined by the user.

lambda expressions take the format (lambda (param) (expression) arg) where arg will be passed to expression through param.

(_eval '((lambda (param)
           (cond ((atom param) (quote is_atom))
                 ((quote t)    (quote not_atom))))
       '((arg (a b))))
; returns not_atom

Note that (quote t) is used here as an explicit else condition. Arc handles these cases gracefully, but because we are bound to the rules of the interpreter we must use this syntax.

During evaluation, the above lambda expression becomes

(_eval '(cond ((atom param) (quote is_atom))
              ((quote t)    (quote not_atom)))
       '((param (a b)) (arg (a b))))

Notice how the arguments are extended to contain a pair for param. This makes use of the supplementary _evlis function which recursively constructs a list of pairs from arg for each param in lambda. This allows lambda to handle any list of parameters.

((lambda ( is the formal definition.

label allows functions to be called by name, which is arguably the most important feature of any programming language.

Here, McCarthy defines ff as a function to return the first atom in a list. It makes use of labeled recursion.

(_eval '((label ff (lambda (x)
                     (cond ((atom x) x)
                           ((quote t) (ff (car x))))))
       '((y ((a b) c))))
; returns a

When _eval finds label, it will store that function in a to be used later. It will also begin evaluating the lambda function defined by label. During evaluation, the above expression becomes

(_eval '((lambda (x)
           (cond ((atom x) x)
                 ((quote t) (ff (car x)))))
       '((ff (label ff (lambda (x)
               (cond ((atom x) x)
                     ((quote t) (ff (car x)))))))
         (y ((a b) c))))

The full evaluation is, as McCarthy puts it, "an activity better suited to electronic computers than to people." I agree and won't be listing out every step of evaluation.

Simplifying _eval

Using _eval in its raw form is rather verbose, so McCarthy defined _apply as a wrapper to _eval that helps keep expressions shorter and easier to understand.

This will take the parameters for _eval and wrap them like (quote (param)). It also applies arguments directly to the function.

(def _appq (m)
  (if (_null m) nil (cons (_list 'quote (car m))
                          (_appq (cdr m)))))

(def _apply (f args)
  (_eval (cons f (_appq args)) nil))

Using this function, the ff function can be written as

(_apply '(label ff (lambda (x)
                     (cond ((atom x) x)
                           ((quote t) (ff (car x))))))
        '(a b))

which calls _eval as

(_eval '((label ff (lambda (x)
                     (cond ((atom x) x)
                           ((quote t) (ff (car x))))))
          (quote a) (quote b))

_apply can be used for anything you would write using _eval. But it is useful to first understand _eval before adding this layer of abstraction.


The ability to define new languages, and monitor their internal state makes LISP an excellent language for exploration and experimentation.

Gone is the magic of compilation and executables. You can see every step of evaluation for yourself. That makes the exercise of stumbling through the archaic syntax fulfilling.

I don't see myself using LISP in production. However, I will continue to use it as a tool for broadening my understanding of low-level programming.

The next step for me is to understand how to implement a compiler that would convert this to machine code. I plan to read Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs to do so.

Additionally, I would like to modernize this interpreter. As Paul Graham wrote, "The language he [John McCarthy] wrote in 1960 was missing a lot. It has no side-effects, no sequential execution, no practical numbers, and dynamic scope." But this can be addressed.

Paul Graham hints at Steele and Sussman's article, The Art of the Interpreter without getting into specifics. Perhaps I'll go through these in another article.

Digging through the history of programming, you'll find LISP's influence everywhere. The exercise of adjusting to its syntax is a worthy pursuit in itself, but developing that true sense of understanding opens a window into the inner workings of all languages. That is the purpose of understanding LISP.

  1. Sinclair Target. "How Lisp Became God's Own Programming Language", Two Bit History, October 14, 2018, accessed April 3, 2020,

Originally published at on April 4, 2020.

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