Debugging with introspection

Debugging is an essential skill for developers, and Ruby provides powerful tools to help identify and fix issues in code. While most Ruby developers are familiar with tools like debug, byebug, pry-byebug, and the classic puts/p/pp, I would like to explore alternatives powered by introspection.

Ruby is a dynamically typed and reflective programming language, which means it provides built-in features that enable introspection and self-modification of code. These features contribute to Ruby’s ability to inspect and manipulate its own structures and behaviour at runtime. Here are some key aspects of the Ruby language that make introspection possible:


Reflection is a fundamental concept in Ruby that allows a program to examine and modify its own structure and behaviour. Ruby provides a rich set of reflection capabilities, including the ability to access class and object information, retrieve method details, and dynamically modify classes and objects.

class Neighbour
  attr_accessor :name, :age

  def greet
    puts "Hello, #{name}!"

# Creating an instance of MyClass
obj = = "Maddison"
obj.age = 25

# Reflection example
puts "Class name: #{obj.class}"                      # Output: Class name: Neighbour
puts "Instance variables: #{obj.instance_variables}" # Output: Instance variables: [:@name, :@age]
puts "Methods: #{obj.methods - Object.methods}"      # Output: Methods: [:age, :greet, :age=, :name=]

# Modifying object behavior dynamically
obj.public_send(:greet)  # Output: Hello, Maddison!

In this example, we define a class, Neighbour, with two instance variables (name and age) and a greet method. Through reflection, we can obtain information about the class name (obj.class), instance variables (obj.instance_variables), and methods (obj.methods). We use the public_send method to dynamically invoke the greet method on the obj object.

Reflection is a powerful feature that allows Ruby programmers to write flexible and dynamic code, making it possible to perform various operations at runtime based on the structure and behavior of objects.


Metaprogramming refers to the ability of a programming language to write code that generates or modifies code. In Ruby, metaprogramming is supported through features such as dynamic method creation, runtime class modification, and the ability to define methods and classes dynamically. These capabilities enable developers to introspect and modify code structures during program execution.

class FooBarBaz
  # Define dynamic methods using metaprogramming
  %i[foo bar baz].each do |method_name|
    define_method(method_name) do
      puts "Called #{method_name}"

# Create an instance of FooBarBaz
obj =

# Call dynamic methods  # Output: Called foo  # Output: Called bar
obj.baz  # Output: Called baz

Here, we define the class FooBarBaz. Using metaprogramming, we dynamically generate methods based on an array of symbols. The define_method method is used to define each method dynamically. In this case, the methods foo, bar, and baz are created, and when called, they simply print a message indicating which method was invoked.

Dynamic Typing#

Ruby is a dynamically typed language, which means variables do not have a fixed type and can change at runtime. This flexibility allows developers to introspect and manipulate objects and their types dynamically. For example, you can check an object’s class, retrieve and modify its instance variables, and dynamically invoke methods based on runtime conditions.

Method Objects#

Ruby treats methods as first-class objects. This means that methods can be assigned to variables, passed as arguments to other methods, and returned as values. Method objects enable powerful introspection and manipulation capabilities, allowing you to examine method details, call methods dynamically, and redefine method behaviour.

class Greeter
  def greet(name)
    puts "Hello, #{name}!"

  def call_greet(callback)"Alice")

# Create an instance of Greeter
obj =

# Create a method object for the "greet" method
greet_method = obj.method(:greet)

# Invoke the method object"John") # Output: Hello, John!

# Pass the method around as a call back like this is JavaScript
obj.call_greet(greet_method) # Output: Hello, Alice!

In this example, we define a class, Greeter, with a greet method that takes a name parameter and prints a greeting message. We create an instance of Greeter and obtain a method object for the greet method using the method method, which takes the method name as a symbol. The resulting method object, greet_method, can be assigned to a variable or passed around like any other object. We can then invoke the method object using the call method and provide the necessary arguments.

Reflection APIs#

Ruby provides a comprehensive set of reflection APIs that expose the language’s internal structures and metadata. These APIs, such as the Object#class, Module#instance_methods, and Method class, allow developers to access information about classes, objects, modules, methods, and more. With these APIs, you can retrieve information about method names, parameters, visibility, source locations, and perform various introspection tasks.

Open Classes#

Ruby’s “open classes” feature allows you to modify existing classes and add or redefine methods dynamically. This capability plays a significant role in introspection and metaprogramming, as it enables developers to extend and modify existing classes to suit their needs. By reopening classes and modifying their behaviour, you can introspect and manipulate the runtime behaviour of objects and classes.

# File 1
class Greeter
  def greet
    puts "Hello, #{name}!"

# File 2
class Greeter
  def greet
    puts "Howdy, #{name}!"
end"Adam") # Output: Howdy, Adam!

Setting the scene#

These features collectively make Ruby a highly introspective language, empowering developers to examine and modify code structures, inspect objects and classes, dynamically invoke methods, and redefine behaviours at runtime. This introspective nature provides a powerful foundation for metaprogramming, debugging, testing, and building dynamic and flexible applications.

Understanding how to leverage these features will greatly enhance your ability to diagnose and troubleshoot Ruby code effectively.

Let’s say you are debugging some code that contains some indirection. Maybe the method being called is in a gem or maybe the receiver has been monkeypatched and you’re not sure which code will receive the message.

One option could be to use pry-byebug to step through the code, but I’ve found there are many situations where this becomes flaky and difficult to use. You might also already be in a console and, while adding a breakpoint isn’t particularly time consuming, it feels heavy handed. Having alternatives in your toolkit can really level up your debugging powers.

Let’s say you have a Cat class that speaks:

class Cat
  def speak

When you call this method, however, you get an unusual response:

=> "woof"

How might you get to the bottom of this? (Other than scratching your head and hoping for the best)

The $ Global Variable in IRB / Rails console#

In interactive Ruby (IRB)—and therefore also in the Rails console—$ can show you the definition of a method and its location.

In the case above, we could find the message receiver by running:

> $

The response we will receive is the path and line number of the file that contains the method and the definition itself:

From: [project path]/config/initializers/monkey_the_cat.rb:2

  def speak

The method Method#

Most of the time, $ is going to be your best option, however, for more advanced requirements, the method method can step it up a notch.

On the surface, it appears to offer similar functionality but with a bit of indirection:

=> #<Method: Cat#speak() [project path]/config/initializers/monkey_the_cat.rb:2>

While you can’t immediately see the method definition, any decent console will allow you to click the path to open the file in your editor (command-click on macOS).

So, what can the method method do that $ can’t?

Inspecting Method Details#

The method method is particularly useful when you want to obtain detailed information about a specific method. By retrieving a Method object using method(:method_name), you can access information such as the method’s name, owner, receiver, parameters, and source location. This level of introspection can be valuable for understanding the behaviour and characteristics of a method, especially when you need to troubleshoot or analyse its implementation.

Dynamic Method Invocation#

If you need to invoke a method dynamically based on runtime conditions, the method method provides a convenient way to do so. By calling method(:method_name).call(arguments), you can execute a specific method based on its name stored in a variable or determined at runtime. This dynamic method invocation can be helpful when you want to conditionally execute different methods based on certain criteria during debugging or experimentation.

Method Redefinition#

When you need to modify or redefine a method at runtime for debugging or testing purposes, the method method allows you to obtain a Method object representing the original method. You can then redefine the method using techniques like method aliasing or method overriding. This approach can be handy when you want to temporarily modify a method’s behaviour for testing different scenarios or diagnosing specific issues without permanently altering the original code.

Advanced Method Manipulation#

The method method opens up possibilities for more advanced method manipulation techniques. For example, you can bind a method to a different object using the unbind and bind methods of the Method object. This allows you to change the method’s receiver dynamically, which can be helpful for testing or debugging scenarios where you want to simulate different contexts or modify the behaviour of a method at runtime.


Debugging is a crucial skill for developers, and Ruby provides powerful features like the $ global variable in IRB and the method(:method_name) method to assist in the debugging process. By utilising these features effectively, you can gain better insights into the flow of execution, inspect objects and variables, track control flow, and introspect method behaviour. Armed with these techniques, you’ll be better equipped to debug Ruby code and resolve issues efficiently.

Happy debugging!