Understand JavaScript Callback Functions and Use Them

»march. 4 2013 180

(Learn JavaScript Higher-order Functions, aka Callback Functions)

In JavaScript, functions are first-class objects; that is, functions are of the type Object and they can be used in a first-class manner like any other object (String, Array, Number, etc.) since they are in fact objects themselves. They can be “stored in variables, passed as arguments to functions, created within functions, and returned from functions”1.

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Because functions are first-class objects, we can pass a function as an argument in another function and later execute that passed-in function or even return it to be executed later. This is the essence of using callback functions in JavaScript. In the rest of this article we will learn everything about JavaScript callback functions. Callback functions are probably the most widely used functional programming technique in JavaScript, and you can find them in just about every piece of JavaScript and jQuery code, yet they remain mysterious to many JavaScript developers. The mystery will be no more, by the time you finish reading this article.

Callback functions are derived from a programming paradigm known as functional programming. At a fundamental level, functional programming specifies the use of functions as arguments. Functional programming was—and still is, though to a much lesser extent today—seen as an esoteric technique of specially trained, master programmers.

Fortunately, the techniques of functional programming have been elucidated so that mere mortals like you and me can understand and use them with ease. One of the chief techniques in functional programming happens to be callback functions. As you will read shortly, implementing callback functions is as easy as passing regular variables as arguments. This technique is so simple that I wonder why it is mostly covered in advanced JavaScript topics.
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