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Defined: Constitutive Rules, When "Because I Said So" Works

What is the difference between the Battle of Austerlitz and an amazing cocktail.

Some say God said, ‘"Let there be light;" and there was light' (Genesis 1:3). Mortals, too, have the power of making manifest the word. We do it with constitutive rules. Constitutive rules describe a way in which lower-level entities count as higher-level entities simply because you say they do. The philosopher John Searle contended:


"[S]ome rules do not merely regulate, they also create the very possibility of certain activities. Thus the rules of chess do not regulate an antecedently existing activity. It is not the case that there were a lot of people pushing bits of wood around on boards, and in order to prevent them from bumping into each other all the time and creating traffic jams, we had to regulate the activity. Rather, the rules of chess create the very possibility of playing chess. The rules are constitutive of chess in the sense that playing chess is constituted in part by acting in accord with the rules."


Searle cited marriage as an example. Saying certain words under certain conditions counts as making a promise, which under certain conditions, counts as a contract, which under certain conditions counts as a marriage, which is an institutional fact. Moreover, explained Searle, "[I]nstitutions are not worn out by continued use, but each use of the institution is in a sense a renewal of that institution. Cars and shirts wear out as we use them but constant use renews and strengthens institutions such as marriage, property, and universities." Searle went on:

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"At this point, I am just calling attention to a peculiar logical feature that distinguishes social concepts from such natural concepts as "mountain" or "molecule." Something can be a mountain even if no one believes it is a mountain; something can be a molecule even if no one thinks anything at all about it. But for social facts, the attitude that we take toward the phenomenon is partly constitutive of the phenomenon. If, for example, we give a big cocktail party, and invite everyone in Paris, and if things get out of hand, and it turns out that the casualty rate is greater than the Battle of Austerlitz--all the same, it is not a war; it is just one amazing cocktail party. Part of being a cocktail party is being thought to be a cocktail party; part of being a war is being thought to be a war."

How does this relate to how people like you and me can make a lasting contribution? Searle gave us the answer: "One way to impose a function on an object is just to start using the object to perform that function." Cooking dinner for somebody is an act of courtship if you say it is (and it isn't if you say it isn't). You impose a function (meaning) on an object (dinner) and begin to use your actions as the institution of courtship. In short, your actions can count as contributing, in part, because you say they do.


Searle, J. 1983. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington. To find out more, go to lastingcontribution.

Tad Waddington, Ph.D. is the author of Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, a book that has won five prestigious awards.

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