@Oddthinking’s answer is not wrong, but I think it misses the real, practical reason Python has ABCs in a world of duck-typing.
Abstract methods are neat, but in my opinion they don’t really fill any use-cases not already covered by duck typing. Abstract base classes’ real power lies in the way they allow you to customise the behaviour of
__subclasshook__ is basically a friendlier API on top of Python’s
__subclasscheck__ hooks.) Adapting built-in constructs to work on custom types is very much part of Python’s philosophy.
Python’s source code is exemplary. Here is how
collections.Container is defined in the standard library (at time of writing):
__slots__ = ()
def __contains__(self, x):
def __subclasshook__(cls, C):
if cls is Container:
if any("__contains__" in B.__dict__ for B in C.__mro__):
This definition of
__subclasshook__ says that any class with a
__contains__ attribute is considered to be a subclass of Container, even if it doesn’t subclass it directly. So I can write this:
def __contains__(self, item):
>>> issubclass(ContainAllTheThings, collections.Container)
>>> isinstance(ContainAllTheThings(), collections.Container)
In other words, if you implement the right interface, you’re a subclass! ABCs provide a formal way to define interfaces in Python, while staying true to the spirit of duck-typing. Besides, this works in a way that honours the Open-Closed Principle.
Python’s object model looks superficially similar to that of a more “traditional” OO system (by which I mean Java*) – we got yer classes, yer objects, yer methods – but when you scratch the surface you’ll find something far richer and more flexible. Likewise, Python’s notion of abstract base classes may be recognisable to a Java developer, but in practice they are intended for a very different purpose.
I sometimes find myself writing polymorphic functions that can act on a single item or a collection of items, and I find
isinstance(x, collections.Iterable) to be much more readable than
hasattr(x, '__iter__') or an equivalent
try...except block. (If you didn’t know Python, which of those three would make the intention of the code clearest?)
That said, I find that I rarely need to write my own ABC and I typically discover the need for one through refactoring. If I see a polymorphic function making a lot of attribute checks, or lots of functions making the same attribute checks, that smell suggests the existence of an ABC waiting to be extracted.
*without getting into the debate over whether Java is a “traditional” OO system…
Addendum: Even though an abstract base class can override the behaviour of
issubclass, it still doesn’t enter the MRO of the virtual subclass. This is a potential pitfall for clients: not every object for which
isinstance(x, MyABC) == True has the methods defined on
def __subclasshook__(cls, C):
# typical client code
c = C()
if isinstance(c, MyABC): # will be true
c.abc_method() # raises AttributeError
Unfortunately this one of those “just don’t do that” traps (of which Python has relatively few!): avoid defining ABCs with both a
__subclasshook__ and non-abstract methods. Moreover, you should make your definition of
__subclasshook__ consistent with the set of abstract methods your ABC defines.