My understanding is that, according to Searle the constitutive rules are the ones that make an act possible in the first place. His analogy is that, without the corresponding constitutive rules, pushing around wooden pieces shaped like chess does not count as playing chess, even if the two players happen to push them around in accordance to chess rules we have now.

On the other hand, my understanding of the necessary and sufficient conditions of an act is not as clear, it just seems that as long as all conditions are satisfied, a speaker can perform the act.

So what's the difference between these two notions? They both look very similar; the only connection I can see is that Searle derived the rules from the conditions, which seems to suggest that the conditions are more basic...but this is far from apparent.

Could anyone help please?

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3 Answers 3


Constitutive rules typically shape concepts which are necessary for a specific type of speech act. A societal agreement on these constitutive rules is a necessary condition for any concrete such speech act to happen. Together with other necessary conditions they form the set of sufficient conditions.

In the example of chess: Constitutive rules determine what a king is, how the queen moves or when one party has been checkmated. However, a concrete game of chess has not happened before two players agree on playing a such and do so in one way or the other.

In the example of marriage: Constitutive rules determine what a marriage registrar is, who qualifies as a witness or of which sexes the bride and groom have to be. However, two concrete people are not married before the marriage registrar utters the magical words "You are now husband and wife".

In the example of an insult: Constitutive rules determine the constituent parts of an insult -- unjustified comparances with certain body parts, certain animals etc. However, nobody has been insulted before somebody actually hearingly utters something along the lines of "You pig".

  • Thank you for your answer, but I am still rather confused; it just seems that there are so many overlaps between a necessary condition and constitutive rule that they may as well be the same thing. Aug 20, 2020 at 10:42
  • So for example when Searle is discussing the conditions and rules for reference as an illocutionary act, 'S intends that the utterance of R will pick out or identify X to H' is a necessary condition. But among the constitutive rules one says 'In the utterance of R, S intends to pick out or identify X to H' (in fact Searle said this rule covers the condition above). So to me it just seems that a constitutive rule may as well be an alternative version of a necessary condition? Aug 20, 2020 at 10:44
  • Constitutive rules are among the necessary conditions for a successful speech act. However, as in your example, there are necessary conditions which are not constitutive rules: for instance the acutal utterance of words which involve R. Basically, a speech act is succesful if it is shaped by constitutive rules (necessary conditions) and these conditions are met (necessary condition). The existence of constitutive rules and the fact that they are followed at some point make for a successful speech act.
    – user14511
    Aug 20, 2020 at 12:39
  • Is it fair to say then, that constitutive rules are a subset of necessary conditions that pertain to institutional facts? Specifically, the constitutive rules are necessary conditions bundled together to define/create these institutional facts? Aug 20, 2020 at 14:50
  • 1
    Most certainly close enough.
    – user14511
    Aug 20, 2020 at 20:20

Let's start with the understanding that a speech act is the basic unit of linguistic communication. To lay the foundation, let's say I make the following two utterances:

  1. I want coffee
  2. Gorb nuggly clmarnof

I think we would all intuitively want to say that the first utterance is a meaningful linguistic communication — a speech act — while the second seems like pure gibberish. But unfortunately, intuition doesn't serve us well here. For instance, I could also have said:

  1. Kei te hiahia au i te kawhe, or
  2. želim kavu

Which would seem like complete gibberish also, unless one knows (respectively) Maori or Croatian well enough to recognize that they mean "I want coffee" in those languages. Likewise, I could claim that "Gorb nuggly clmarnof" means "I want coffee" in some strange and remote language: e.g., Klingon, Martian, Dolphin... Worse, I don't need to resort to other languages, or strange syllabic messes. If I were to utter, say:

  1. The tidal song besmirches ziggurats

...which is a grammatically sound sentence using perfectly adequate English words, there would still be a significant question about whether that statement is an act of communication. Because honestly, what have I communicated by saying that?

So we have a distinct problem: how do we know that one utterance is a valid speech act while another is not? This is where Searle turns and starts looking for the necessary and sufficient conditions of a speech act: the particular attributes an utterance must have to be considered a speech act, and the set or sets of such attributes that are the minimum required of a speech act. Thus it is clear, for instance, that the following are necessary conditions:

  • The physical act of making an utterance (writing, speaking, singing, etc)
  • The intention to communicate (the desire to create common understanding)

It can't be a speech act if I neglect to make an utterance, since no 'act' is done. It can't be a speech act if I have no intention of communicating anything, since my utterance will just be gibberish. But by the same token, these two attributes are not suffcient to constitute a speech act. For instance I can utter "Gorb nuggly clmarnof" and really intend to convey the idea that 'I want coffee' by uttering it, but it still fails to communicate anything, because it's not properly constructed language.

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  • Thank you so much for your answer; in your last example "Gorb nuggly clmarnof", obviously it's not properly constructed because it is not written in proper English grammar - so is this what constitutive rule is about? ie. constitutive rule = semantic rule that governs language use? Aug 16, 2020 at 15:12
  • @DanielMak: I was going to update my answer (per JD's previous comments) to cover constitutive rules more, but I've haven't gotten to it yet. State tuned for that. 😀 The short answer, though, is that constitutive rules are more than just grammar and syntax. Constitutive rules are rules that define the act as an act within a particular context. The constitutive rules are those by which an utterance can (say) successfully become a declaration of a coffee break. 'gnc' does not do that (partly because it's not proper grammar); but a context could exist in which 'gnc' does that. Aug 16, 2020 at 15:38

The short answer is that constitutive rules generally are more fundamental than the act. This is because the rules negotiate the social interaction to achieve the goal, whereas the illocutionary act is a tool to make that interaction occur smoothly.

Before answering in-depth, let's review:

A constitutive rule is one without which the social transaction cannot be met. The chess is the example used to show this. Thus, a necessary condition of a constitutive rule is that it is itself a necessary condition of the social construction of reality, in this case, the behavior understood as a chess game. A child can certainly move the pieces around on the board, but without participating in such a way that demonstrates an understanding of the constitutive rules, the child is not playing chess.

An illocutionary act is one that has at least two necessary conditions, one of which is that a conventional utterance is put forth, and the other that some sort of goal is realized, mainly an effect upon the hearer. This effect as per Austin is the perlocutionary act. Note, that a speaker's goal need not actually be realized. Let's say the adult playing chess wants to end the "game" (teaching experience, pseudo-game, etc.). So, she tells the child, "you've checkmated my king!". Since the child isn't playing by the constitutive rules of chess, the speaker's intent isn't so much as to make the literal (propositional) claim that checkmate has occurred according to the rules of chess, but rather that the activity is ending. Of course, the child wouldn't know this or what 'checkmate' means on a propositional or illocutionary level. Here the teacher is intending to familiarize the child with ultimate goal of chess by association. The child will begin to pair up the utterance "checkmate" with the end of the activity.

Now, let's compare the difference between constitutive rules and illocutionary acts to see how the two relate more properly.

In the social construction of reality, for two participants to be engaged in roughly the same reality (think chess game), both agents have to have essentially the same knowledge of the constitutive rules. Like a tyro and a grandmaster, that knowledge will not be identical, but it must be similar enough to allow the continued participation of both parties. It is on the basis of these constitutive rules that the illocutionary acts occur. Simply put, one cannot talk about and play a game of chess without knowing the rules of chess! Now here is the tricky part. *The necessity of the constitutive rules is domain-specific. If the chess teacher and the child start playing checkers, a much simpler board game, suddenly a child becomes capable of engaging in illocutionary acts since a simpler set of constitutive rules that the child is now familiar with is at play.

On page 40 of Speech Acts (Cambridge Press '87 reprint), Searle says:

Second, must there be rules (realized somehow) in order that it be possible to perform this or that illocutionary act? ... my answer to the second is that for most kinds of illocutionary acts, yes they are rule governed [sic]...

However, he does raise the possibility of his own error on the next page...

Even if it should turn out that I am wrong about question two, that illocutionary acts all can be performed standing outside any system of constitutive rules, it still would not follow that performing them in a language is not engaging a rule-governed form of behavior...

He's not too concerned, however, because his focus in this book (he has a follow up called the Social Construction of Reality where he doubles down and expands on his theory of speech acts) is on the speech act. To wit:

I hold both views, but it is only the answer to [another] question... which is crucial to my enterprise in this essay, because it is that view which articulates the hypothesis that speaking a language is engaging in a rule-governed form of behavior.


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