As mentioned earlier, Type is the type of types. So, one might ask the question, what is the type of Type itself? Indeed, one can write the following and it may appear at first that the type of Type is Type.

let ty : Type = Type

However, behind the scenes, F* actually has a countably infinite hierarchy of types, Type u#0, Type u#1, Type u#2, …, and the type of Type u#i is actually Type u#(i + 1). The u#i suffixes are called universe levels and if you give F* the following option, it will actually show you the universe levels it inferred when it prints a term.

#push-options "--print_universes"

With this option enabled, in fstar-mode.el, the F* emacs plugin, hovering on the symbol ty prints Type u#(1 + _), i.e., the type of ty is in a universe that is one greater than some universe metavariable _, i.e., ty is universe polymorphic. But, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

In this chapter, we’ll look at universe levels in detail, including why they’re necessary to avoid paradoxes, and showing how to manipulate definitions that involve universes. For the most part, F* infers the universe levels of a term and you don’t have to think too much about it—in fact, in all that we’ve seen so far, F* inferred universe levels behind the scenes and we haven’t had to mention them. Though, eventually, they do crop up and understanding what they mean and how to work with them becomes necessary.

Other resources to learn about universes:

  • The Agda manual has a nice chapter on universes, including universe polymorphism.

  • This chapter from Adam Chlipala’s Certified Programming with Dependent Types describes universes in Coq. While it also provides useful background, F*’s universe system is more similar to Agda’s and Lean’s than Coq’s.


A universe annotation on a term takes the form u#l, where l is a universe level. The universe levels are terms from the following grammar:

k ::= 0 | 1 | 2 | ...    any natural number constant
l ::= k                  universe constant
    | l + k | k + l      constant offset from level l
    | max l1 l2          maximum of two levels
    | a | b | c | ...    level variables

Let’s revisit our first example, this time using explicit universe annotations to make things clearer.

We’ve defined, below, instances of Type for universe levels 0, 1, 2 and we see that each of them has a type at the next level. The constant Type u#0 is common enough that F* allows you to write Type0 instead.

let ty0 : Type u#1 = Type u#0
let ty0' : Type u#1 = Type0
let ty1 : Type u#2 = Type u#1
let ty2 : Type u#3 = Type u#2

If you try to define ty_bad below, F* complains with the following error:

let ty_bad : Type u#0 = Type u#0
Expected expression of type "Type0"; got expression "Type0" of type "Type u#1"

The restriction that prevents a Type from being an inhabitant of itself if sometimes called predicativity. The opposite, impredicativity, if not suitably restricted, usually leads to logical inconsistency. F* provides a limited form of impredicativity through the use of squash types, which we’ll see towards the end of this chapter.


That said, if we didn’t turn on the option --print_universes, the error message you get may be, sadly, bit baffling:

Expected expression of type "Type"; got expression "Type" of type "Type"

Turning on --print_universes and --print_implicits is a good way to make sense of type errors where the expected type and the type that was computed seem identical.

Now, instead of defining several constants like ty0, ty1, ty2 etc., F* definitions can be universe polymorphic. Below, we define ty_poly as Type u#a, for any universe variable a, and so ty has type Type u#(a + 1).

let ty_poly : Type u#(a + 1) = Type u#a

One way to think of ty_poly is as a “definition template” parameterized by the by the universe-variable a. One can instantiate ty_poly with a specific universe level l (by writing ty_poly u#l) and obtain a copy of its definition specialized to level l. F* can prove that instantiation of ty_poly are equal to the non-polymorphic definitions we had earlier. As the last example shows, F* can usually infer the universe instantiation, so you often don’t need to write it.

let _ = assert (ty_poly u#0 == ty0)
let _ = assert (ty_poly u#1 == ty1)
let _ = assert (ty_poly u#2 == ty2)
let _ = assert (ty_poly == ty0)

Universe computations for other types

Every type in F* lives in a particular universe. For example, here are some common types in Type u#0.

let _ : Type0 = nat
let _ : Type0 = bool
let _ : Type0 = nat -> bool

Universe of an arrow type: In general, the universe of an arrow type x:t -> t' is the the maximum of the universe of t and t'.

This means that functions that are type-polymorphic live in higher universes. For example, the polymorphic identity function that we saw in an earlier section, is actually also polymorphic in the universe level of its type argument.

let id_t : Type u#(i + 1) = a:Type u#i -> a -> a
let id : id_t = fun a x -> x

That is, the type of the identity function id is id_t or a:Type u#i -> a -> a—meaning, for all types a in universe Type u#i, id a is function of type a -> a.

Now, id_t is itself a type in universe Type u#(i + 1), and since the id function can be applied to types in any universe, it can be applied to id_t too. So, it may look like this allows one to write functions that can be applied to themselves—which would be bad, since that would allow one to create infinite loops and break F*’s logic.

let seemingly_self_application : id_t = id _ id

However, if we write out the universe levels explicitly, we see that actually we aren’t really applying the id function to itself. Things are actually stratified, so that we are instead applying an instance of id at universe u#(i + 1) to the instance of id at universes u#i.

let stratified_application : id_t u#i = id u#(i + 1) (id_t u#i) (id u#i)

One intuition for what’s happening here is that there are really infinitely many instances of the F* type system nested within each other, with each instance forming a universe. Type-polymorphic functions (like id) live in some universe u#(a + 1) and are parameterized over all the types in the immediately preceding universe u#a. The universe levels ensure that an F* function within universe level u#a cannot consume or produce terms that live in some greater universe.

Universe level of an inductive type definition

F* computes a universe level for inductive type definitions. To describe the rules for this in full generality, consider again the general form of an inductive type definition, shown first here, but this time with the universe level of each type constructor made explicit, i.e., \(T_i\) constructs a type in universe \(\mathsf{Type~u\#l_i}\)

\[\begin{split}\mathsf{type}~T_1~\overline{(x_1:p_i)} : \overline{y_1:q_1} \rightarrow \mathsf{Type}~u\#l_1 = \overline{\bar D_1 : t_1} \\ \mathsf{and}~T_n~\overline{(x_n:p_n)} : \overline{y_n:q_n} \rightarrow \mathsf{Type}~u\#l_n = \overline{\bar D_n : t_n} \\\end{split}\]

Recall that each type constructor \(T_i\) has zero or more data constructors \(\overline{D_i:t_i}\) and for each data constructor \(D_{ij}\), its type \(t_{ij}\) must be of the form \(\overline{z_{ij}:s_{ij}} \rightarrow T_i~\bar{x_i}~\bar{e}\)

In addition to checking, as usual, that the each \(t_{ij}\) is well-typed, F* also checks the universe levels according to the following rule:

  • Assuming that each \(T_i\) has universe level \(l_i\), for every data constructor \(D_{ij}\), and for each of its arguments \(z_{ijk} : s_{ijk}\), check \(s_{ijk} : \mathsf{Type}~u\#l_{ijk}\) and \(l_{ijk} \leq l_i\).

In other words, the universe level of each type constructor must not be less than the universe of any of the fields of data constructors.

In practice, F* infers the universe levels \(l_1, \ldots, l_n\), by collecting level-inequality constraints and solving them using the max operator on universe levels, i.e., \(l_i\) is set to \(max_{jk}~l_{ijk}\), the maximum of the universe levels of all the fields of the constructors \(\overline{D_i : t_i}\). Let’s look at some examples.

The list type

The list type below is parameterized by a:Type u#a and constructs a type in the same universe.

type list (a:Type u#a) : Type u#a  =
 | Nil : list a
 | Cons : hd:a -> tl:list a -> list a
  • The Nil constructor has no fields, so it imposes no constraints on the universe level of list a.

  • The Cons constructor has two fields. Its first field hd has type a: Type u#a: we have a constraint that u#a \(\leq\) u#a; and the second field, by assumption, has type list a : Type u#a, and again we have the constraint u#a \(\leq\) u#a.

F* infers the minimum satisfiable universe level assignment, by default. But, there are many solutions to the inequalities, and if needed, one can use annotations to pick another solution. For example, one could write this, though it rarely makes sense to pick a universe for a type higher than necessary (see this section for an exception).

type list' (a:Type u#a) : Type u#(1 + a)  =
 | Nil' : list' a
 | Cons' : hd:a -> tl:list' a -> list' a


Universe level variables are drawn from a different namespace than other variables. So, one often writes a:Type u#a, where a is a regular variable and u#a is the universe level of the type of a.

The pair type

The pair type below is parameterized by a:Type u#a and b:Type u#b and constructs a type in u#(max a b).

type pair (a:Type u#a) (b:Type u#b) : Type u#(max a b) =
  | Pair : fst:a -> snd:b -> pair a b
  • The fst field is in u#a and so we have u#a \(\leq\) u#(max a b).

  • The snd field is in u#b and so we have u#b \(\leq\) u#(max a b).

The top type

The top type below packages a value at any type a:Type u#a with its type.

type top : Type u#(a + 1) =
  | Top : a:Type u#a -> v:a -> top
  • The a field of Top is in u#(a + 1) while the v field is in u#a. So, top itself is in u#(max (a + 1) a), which simplifies to u#(a + 1).

One intuition for why this is so is that from a value of type t : top one can write a function that computes a value of type Type u#a, i.e., Top?.a t. So, if instead we have top: Type u#a and t:top, then Top?.a : top -> Type u#a, which would break the stratification of universes, since from a value top in universe u#a, we would be able to project out a value in Type u#(a + 1), which leads to a paradox, as we’ll see next.

What follows is quite technical and you only need to know that the universe system exists to avoid paradoxes, not how such paradoxes are constructed.

Russell’s Paradox

Type theory has its roots in Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics, which explores the logical foundations of mathematics and set theory. In this work, Russell proposed the paradoxical set \(\Delta\) whose elements are exactly all the sets that don’t contain themselves and considered whether or not \(\Delta\) contained itself. This self-referential construction is paradoxical since:

  • If \(\Delta \in \Delta\), then since the only sets in \(\Delta\) are the sets that don’t contain themselves, we can conclude that \(\Delta \not\in \Delta\).

  • On the other hand, if \(\Delta \not\in \Delta\), then since \(\Delta\) contains all sets that don’t contain themselves, we can conclude that \(\Delta \in \Delta\).

To avoid such paradoxes, Russell formulated a stratified system of types to prevent nonsensical constructions that rely on self-reference. The universe levels of modern type theories serve much the same purpose.

In fact, as the construction below shows, if it were possible to break the stratification of universes in F*, then one can code up Russell’s \(\Delta\) set and prove False. This construction is derived from Thorsten Altenkirch’s Agda code. Liam O’Connor also provides some useful context and comparison. Whereas the Agda code uses a special compiler pragma to enable unsound impredicativity, in F* we show how a user-introduced axiom can simulate impredicativity and enable the same paradox.

Breaking the Universe System

Consider the following axioms that intentionally break the stratification of F*’s universe system. We’ll need the following ingredients:

  1. A strictly positive type constructor lower that takes a type in any universe a:Type u#a, and returns a type in u#0. Note, we covered strictly positive type functions, previously.

val lower ([@@@strictly_positive] a:Type u#a) : Type u#0
  1. Assume there is a function called inject, which takes value of type x:a and returns value of type lower a.

val inject (#a:Type u#a) (x:a) : lower a
  1. lower and inject on their own are benign (e.g., let lower _ = unit and let inject _ = ()). But, now if we assume we have a function project that is the inverse of inject, then we’ve opened the door to paradoxes.

val project (#a:Type u#a) (x:lower a) : a

val inj_proj (#a:Type u#a) (x:a)
  : Lemma (project (inject x) == x)

Encoding Russell’s Paradox

To show the paradox, we’ll define a notion of set in terms of a form of set comprehensions f: x -> set, where x:Type u#0 is the domain of the comprehension, supposedly bounding the cardinality of the set. We’ll subvert the universe system by treating set as living in universe u#0, even though its constructor Set has a field x:Type u#0 that has universe level u#1

type _set : Type u#1 =
  | Set : x:Type0 -> f:(x -> set) -> _set
and set : Type0 = lower _set

This construction allows us to define many useful sets. For example, the empty set zero uses the empty type False as the domain of its comprehension and so has no elements; or the singleton set one whose only element is the empty set; or the set two that contains the empty set zero and the singleton set one.

let zero : set = inject (Set False (fun _ -> false_elim()))
let one : set = inject (Set True (fun _ -> zero))
let two : set = inject (Set bool (fun b -> if b then zero else one))

One can also define set membership: A set a is a member of a set b, if one can exhibit an element v of the domain type of b (i.e., (project b).x), such that b’s comprehension (project b).f applied to v is a.

For example, one can prove mem zero two by picking true for v and mem one two by picking false for v. Non-membership is just the negation of membership.

let mem (a:set) (b:set) : Type0 =
  (v:(project b).x & (a == (project b).f v))

let not_mem (a:set) (b:set) : Type0 = mem a b -> False

Now, we are ready to define Russell’s paradoxical set \(\Delta\). First, we define delta_big in a larger universe and then use inject to turn it into a set : Type u#0. The encoding of delta_big is fairly direct: Its domain type is the type of sets s paired with a proof that s does not contain itself; and its comprehension function just returns s itself.

let delta_big = Set (s:set & not_mem s s) dfst
let delta : set = inject delta_big

We can now prove both delta `mem` delta and delta `not_mem` delta, using the unsound inj_proj axiom that breaks the universe system, and derive False.

let x_in_delta_x_not_in_delta (x:set) (mem_x_delta:mem x delta)
  : not_mem x x 
  = let (| v, r |) = mem_x_delta in // mem proofs are pairs
    let v : (project delta).x = v in // whose first component is an element of delta's comprehension domain
    let r : (x == (project delta).f v) = r in //and whose second component proves that x is equal to an element in delta
    inj_proj delta_big; // we use the unsound axiom to conclude that `v` is actually the domain of delta_big
    let v : (s:set & not_mem s s) = v in //and now we can retype `v` this way
    let (| s, pf |) = v in //and unpack it into its components
    let r : (x == s) = r in //and the axiom also allows us to retype `r` this way
    let pf : not_mem x x = pf in //which lets us convert pf from `not_mem s s` to the goal
    pf //not_mem x x

let delta_not_in_delta
  : not_mem delta delta
  = fun (mem_delta_delta:mem delta delta) ->

let x_not_mem_x_x_mem_delta (x:set) (x_not_mem_x:x `not_mem` x)
  : x `mem` delta
  = let v : (s:set & not_mem s s) = (| x, x_not_mem_x |) in //an element of the domain set of delta_big
    inj_proj delta_big; // the unsound axiom now lets us relate it to delta
    let s : (x == (project delta).f v) = //and prove that projecting delta's comprehension and applying to v return x`
        FStar.Squash.return_squash Refl
    (| v,  s |)

let delta_in_delta
  : mem delta delta
  = x_not_mem_x_x_mem_delta delta delta_not_in_delta
let ff : False = delta_not_in_delta delta_in_delta

The proofs are more detailed than they need to be, and if you’re curious, maybe you can follow along by reading the comments.

The upshot, however, is that without the stratification of universes, F* would be unsound.

Refinement types, FStar.Squash, prop, and Impredicativity

We’ve seen how universes levels are computed for arrow types and inductive type definitions. The other way in which types can be formed in F* is with refinement types: x:t{p}. As we’ve seen previously, a value v of type x:t{p} is just a v:t where p[v/x] is derivable in the current scope in F*’s SMT-assisted classical logic—there is no way to extract a proof of p from a proof of x:t{p}, i.e., refinement types are F*’s mechanism for proof irrelevance.

Universe of a refinement type: The universe of a refinement type x:t{p} is the universe of t.

Since the universe of a refinement type does not depend on p, it enables a limited form of impredicativity, and we can define the following type (summarized here from the F* standard library FStar.Squash):

let squash (p:Type u#p) : Type u#0 = _:unit { p }
let return_squash (p:Type u#p) (x:p) : squash p = ()

This is a lot like the lower and inject assumptions that we saw in the previous section, but, importantly, there is no project operation to invert an inject. In fact, FStar.Squash proves that squash p is proof irrelevant, meaning that all proofs of squash p are equal.

val proof_irrelevance (p: Type u#p) (x y: squash p) : squash (x == y)

FStar.Squash does provide a limited way to manipulate a proof of p given a squash p, using the combinator bind_squash shown below, which states that if f can build a proof squash b from any proof of a, then it can do so from the one and only proof of a that is witnessed by x:squash a.

val bind_squash (#a: Type u#a) (#b: Type u#b) (x: squash a) (f: (a -> squash b)) : squash b

It is important that bind_squash return a squash b, maintaining the proof-irrelevance of the squash type. Otherwise, if one could extract a proof of a from squash a, we would be perilously close to the unsound project axiom which enables paradoxes.

This restriction is similar to Coq’s restriction on its Prop type, forbidding functions match on Prop to return results outside Prop.

The F* type prop (which we saw first here) is defined primitively as type of all squashed types, i.e., the only types in prop are types of the form squash p; or, equivalently, every type t : prop, is a subtype of unit. Being the type of a class of types, prop in F* lives in u#1

let _ : Type u#1 = prop

However, prop still offers a form of impredicativity, e.g., you can quantify over all prop while remaining in prop.

let _ : Type u#1 = a:prop -> a
let _ : Type u#0 = squash (a:prop -> a)
let _ : prop = forall (a:prop). a
let _ : prop = exists (a:prop). a
  • The first line above shows that, as usual, an arrow type is in a universe that is the maximum of the universes of its argument and result types. In this case, since it has an argument prop : Type u#1 the arrow itself is in u#1.

  • The second line shows that by squashing the arrow type, we can bring it back to u#0

  • The third line shows the more customary way of doing this in F*, where forall (a:prop). a is just syntactic sugar for squash (a:prop -> a). Since this is a squash type, not only does it live in Type u#0, it is itself a prop.

  • The fourth line shows that the same is true for exists.

Raising universes and the lack of cumulativity

In some type theories, notably in Coq, the universe system is cumulative, meaning that Type u#i : Type u#(max (i + i) j); or, that Type u#i inhabits all universes greater than i. In contrast, in F*, as in Agda and Lean, Type u#i : Type u#(i + 1), i.e., a type resides only in the universe immediately above it.

Cumulativity is a form of subtyping on universe levels, and it can be quite useful, enabling definitions at higher universes to be re-used for all lower universes. However, systems that mix universe polymorphism with cumulativity are quite tricky, and indeed, it was only recently that Coq offered both universe polymorphism and cumulativity.

Lacking cumulativity, F* provides a library FStar.Universe that enables lifting a term from one universe to a higher one. We summarize it here:

val raise_t ([@@@ strictly_positive] t : Type u#a) : Type u#(max a b)

val raise_val (#a:Type u#a) (x:a) : raise_t u#a u#b a

val downgrade_val (#a:Type u#a) (x:raise_t u#a u#b a) : a

val downgrade_val_raise_val (#a: Type u#a) (x: a)
  : Lemma (downgrade_val u#a u#b (raise_val x) == x)

val raise_val_downgrade_val (#a: Type u#a) (x: raise_t u#a u#b a)
  : Lemma (raise_val (downgrade_val x) == x)

The type raise_t t is strictly positive in t and raises t from u#a to u#(max a b). raise_val and downgrade_val are mutually inverse functions between t and raise_t t.

This signature is similar in structure to the unsound signature for lower, inject, project that we use to exhibit Russell’s paradox. However, crucially, the universe levels in raise_t ensure that the universe levels increase, preventing any violation of universe stratification.

In fact, this signature is readily implemented in F*, as shown below, where the universe annotation on raise_t explicitly defines the type in a higher universe u#(max a b) rather than in its minimum universe u#a.

type raise_t (a : Type u#a) : Type u#(max a b) =
  | Ret : a -> raise_t a

let raise_val #a x = Ret x
let downgrade_val #a x = match x with Ret x0 -> x0
let downgrade_val_raise_val #a x = ()
let raise_val_downgrade_val #a x = ()

Tips for working with universes

Whenever you write Type in F*, you are implicitly writing Type u#?x, where ?x is a universe metavariable left for F* to infer. When left implicit, this means that F* may sometimes infer universes for your definition that are not what you expect—they may be too general or not general enough. We conclude this section with a few tips to detect and fix such problems.

  • If you see puzzling error messages, enable the following pragma:

    #push-options "--print_implicits --print_universes"

    This will cause F* to print larger terms in error messages, which you usually do not want, except when you are confronted with error messages of the form “expected type t; got type t”.

  • Aside from the built-in constants Type u#a, the -> type constructor, and the refinement type former, the only universe polymorphic F* terms are top-level definitions. That is, while you can define i at the top-level and use it polymorphically:

    let i (#a:Type) (x:a) = x
    let _ = i u#0 0, i u#1 nat, i u#2 (Type u#0)

    You cannot do the same in a non-top-level scope:

    let no_universe_poly_locally () = 
      let i (#a:Type) (x:a) = x in
      let _ = i u#0 0, i u#1 nat, i u#2 (Type u#0) in

    Of course, non-universe-polymorphic definitions work at all scopes, e.g., here, the i is polymorphic in all types at universe u#0.

    let type_poly_locally () = 
      let i (#a:Type) (x:a) = x in
      let _ = i #unit (), i #bool true, i #nat 0 in
  • If you write a val f : t declaration for f, F* will compute the most general universe for the type t independently of the let f = e or type f = definition.

    A simple example of this behavior is the following. Say, you declare tup2 as below.

    val tup2 (a:Type) (b:Type) : Type

    Seeing this declaration F* infers val tup2 (a:Type u#a) (b:Type u#b) : Type u#c, computing the most general type for tup2.

    If you now try to define tup2,

    let tup2 a b = a & b

    F* complains with the following error (with --print_universes on):

    Type u#(max uu___43588 uu___43589) is not a subtype of the expected type Type u#uu___43590

    Meaning that the inferred type for the definition of tup2 a b is Type u#(max a b), which is of course not the same a Type u#c, and, sadly, the auto-generated fresh names in the error message don’t make your life any easier.

    The reason for this is that one can write a val f : t in a context where a definition for f may never appear, in which case F* has to compute some universes for t—it chooses the most general universe, though if you do try to implement f you may find that the most general universe is too general.

    A good rule of thumb is the following:

    • Do not write a val declaration for a term, unless you are writing an interface. Instead, directly write a let or type definition and annotate it with the type you expect it to have—this will lead to fewer surprises. For example, instead of separating the val tup2 from let tup2 just write them together, as shown below, and F* infers the correct universes.

      let tuple2 (a:Type) (b:Type) : Type = a & b
    • If you must write a val f : t, because, say, the type t is huge, or because you are writing an interface, it’s a good idea to be explicit about universes, so that when defining f, you know exactly how general you have to be in terms of universes; and, conversely, users of f know exactly how much universe polymorphism they are getting. For example:

      val tup2_again (a:Type u#a) (b:Type u#b) : Type u#(max a b)
      let tup2_again a b = a & b
  • When defining an inductive type, prefer using parameters over indexes, since usually type parameters lead to types in lower universes. For example, one might think to define lists this way:

    type list_alt : Type u#a -> Type u#(a + 1) = 
      | NilAlt: a:Type -> list_alt a
      | ConsAlt: a:Type -> hd:a -> tl:list_alt a -> list_alt a

    Although semantically equivalent to the standard list

    type list (a:Type u#a) : Type u#a  =
     | Nil : list a
     | Cons : hd:a -> tl:list a -> list a

    list_alt produces a type in u#(a + 1), since both NilAlt and ConsAlt have fields of type a:Type u#a. So, unless the index of your type varies among the constructors, use a parameter instead of an index.

    That said, recall that it’s the fields of the constructors of the inductive type that count. You can index your type by a type in any universe and it doesn’t influence the result type. Here’s an artificial example.

    type t : Type u#100 -> Type u#0 = 
      | T : unit -> t (FStar.Universe.raise_t unit)