I am a philosophy adjunct at the University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Wyoming as well as a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Miami.
My main areas of research include: Metaphysics, especially metametaphysics, feminist metaphysics/social ontology, and metaontology. Aesthetics, particularly aesthetic value, art ontology and metaontology, aesthetic disagreement, and issues related to parody, subversion, and appropriation. Philosophy of Language, primarily nonrepresentationalism, conceptual engineering/ethics, metalinguistic negotiation, and verbal disputes. The Philosophy of Race, Gender, and Disability, especially with regard to metaphysics and language. Meta-philosophy, as it pertains to the aforementioned topics.
I also have interests in Social Philosophy, Disability Studies, Philosophy of Law (specifically the nature of Fair Use and Copyright Law, as well as disability policies and laws), Ancient Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, the Philosophy of Sex and Love, Philosophy of Science, German Idealism, and 19th-20th century Existentialism.
I also like writing philosophy for a general audience.
Here's a piece I wrote for Psyche about the significance of aesthetic disagreement for enriching our lives.
I grew up in Houston, Texas. I began my academic journey at San Jacinto Community College and I received my B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming.
In my spare time I like to run, camp, hike, take road trips in my 1978 Dodge Tradesman named Sally, hang out with my cat, play video games, and read philosophy.
I used to follow Bob Dylan around on tour.
My last name looks much harder to pronounce than it is:
"can't" "a-la" "mess" "ah".
Here I am on the Appalachian Trail.
PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY, ARTICLES, AND DRAFTS
DEBATING BON JOVI'S CHEESINESS WILL ENRICH YOUR CONCEPTUAL LIFE
In this piece for Psyche I argue that aesthetic terms do not function to represent properties in the world but as proposals for how we should treat valuable items in the world. Because of this, disagreements involving aesthetic terms are inevitable. However, this inevitability is a virtue because it enables us to draw out ways the world might or should be, thus freeing us from the way the world is. Also, communities that debate the quality of speedruns are doing the same sort of thing as academic philosophers.
APPROPRIATION ART, FAIR USE, AND METALINGUISTIC NEGOTIATION (BRITISH JOURNAL OF AESTHETICS
Appropriation art (AA) involves the use of pre-existing works of art with little to no transformation. Works of AA (often) fail to satisfy established criteria for originality, such as creative labor and transformative use. As such, appropriation artists are often subject to copyright lawsuits and defend their work under the fair use doctrine of US copyright law. In legal cases regarding AA and fair use, judges lack a general principle whereby they can determine whether or not the offending party has ‘transformed’ the original work in order to qualify as creating a new work. Further, it is not the case that there is some antecedent fact that could determine the outcome one way or another. I diagnose debates surrounding the originality of works of AA as cases of “metalinguistic negotiation” over what concepts we should attach to terms like ‘copy’, ‘transformative’, and ‘work of art’.
DISABILITY STUDIES, CONCEPTUAL ENGINEERING, AND CONCEPTUAL ACTIVISM (INQUIRY: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY)
In this project I am concerned with the extent to which conceptual engineering happens in domains outside of philosophy, and if so, what that might look like. Specifically, I’ll argue that practitioners working in the interdisciplinary field of “disability studies” as well as disability rights activists have been engineering the concept DISABILITY. Claims made by theorists working in disability studies appear to contradict both common sense and academic beliefs about disability. I provide a framework for understanding the methodology and practices of theorists working in disability studies that pays attention to what theorists are doing when they make seemingly paradoxical claims. I’ll argue that such claims are not describing what it’s like to have a disability, but pragmatically advocating against biased conceptions of disability and are best understood as a form of conceptual activism. I then argue that debates about the proper model of disability from within disability studies exhibit the markers of conceptual engineering and are better understood as “advocating” for certain conceptual schemata rather than merely reporting quasi-scientific discoveries about disability. I conclude by suggesting that normative analyses from disability studies provide a useful example for philosophers interested in conceptual engineering.
IS THIS (REALLY) ART? AESTHETIC DISAGREEMENT AND CONCEPTUAL NEGOTIATION
For the online blog Aesthetics for Birds
In this piece I argue that disagreements involving the term 'art' exhibit the markers of conceptual negotiation. Conceptual negotiations are debates over how we should think and talk using some term, and as such are not settled by antecedent facts (such as how we have used the term in the past).
ART AS CONCEPTUAL ENGINEERING
Here's a version I presented for the ARCHÉ Webinar Series on Conceptual Engineering
In this paper I argue that our engagement in debates about art can be fruitfully understood along the same lines as debates in conceptual engineering. Proposals in conceptual engineering are not to be evaluated on the basis of their ability to track empirical essences but on the basis of a concept’s epistemic, pragmatic, or political merits. In the same way, we should view membership in the category ‘work of art’ as well as subcategories such as ‘folk art’ and ‘sculpture’ not as a fact to be discovered but a decision to be made. I flesh out this core idea by describing a normativist account of aesthetic terms, according to which our terms do not function to “pick out” properties in the world but enable speakers to convey, endorse, and negotiate semantic and behavioral norms. I conclude by showing how this parallel understanding of art and conceptual engineering sheds light on more general issues for conceptual engineers, such as the role of power in the legitimization of new concepts and philosophical questions.
INVERTING THE IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGE FOR CONCEPTUAL ENGINEERS:
LESSONS FROM THE DISABILITY RIGHTS MOVEMENT
In this paper I survey some empirical and theoretical work on the “Implementation Gap” that arose between the design and adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act, touted as an important component in combatting the attitudinal and structural barriers that impact people with disabilities. My methodology will draw on public communications by scholars and activists in legal and disability theory as well as the testimony of people with disabilities regarding how successful the ADA has been in combatting employment-based discrimination (one of its intended purposes).
I outline 5 major factors that theorists and practitioners recognize as contributing to the “Implementation Gap” between the intended purpose and design of the social model, its implementation in public policy, and the effects of that implementation on disability concepts and norms. I then present what I call the Inverted Implementation Problem for Conceptual Engineers, which draws on the meta-conceptual issues that arise from studying the Implementation Gap and provides a new set of challenges for conceptual engineers interested in successful implementation.
A NORMATIVIST MODEL OF AESTHETIC DISAGREEMENT
In this paper I propose a normativist treatment of aesthetic disagreement. I’ll argue that authored works play certain roles in rule-based social practices of aesthetic classification and appreciation. The rules for classifying artworks are open-ended and some works cause a breakdown in our typical practices of categorizing and evaluating, which encourages audiences to reflect on the criteria they think are important for treating a work as art or of a given (art) kind. These works thus function like thought-experiments in philosophy: both involve hypothetical scenarios that enable us to assess whether a given aesthetic category or term should or should not apply. This is why artworks bring with them pervasive, and to a certain extent irresolvable, disagreements. While disagreements over works often involve claims like: “An Instagram portrait cannot be a work of art!” speakers are using object-language indicatives to implicitly negotiate the very rules that underlie the relevant artifactual kinds, and in some cases, the term ‘art’ itself. I’ll argue that the point of these disputes lies not in amassing true beliefs about the aesthetic properties of the requisite works or compelling one's interlocutor to agree, but in improving one's competency with the semantic rules governing the relevant terms. Further, disputants enact their aesthetic agency in attempting to “spell out” how their reasons “hang together” when debating with others. Disagreement, then, is an essential aspect of our discursive and evaluative practices.
CONCEPTUAL ENGINEERING FOR ANTI-REPRESENTATIONALISTS (WITH JARED RIGGS)
Conceptual engineering is often framed as the activity of critically assessing our representational devices. Typically, this framework is taken to be fully general in that it captures any framework, project, and methodology in conceptual engineering. However, there are both domain specific and domain general reasons to think that characterizing a target domain as “representational devices” excludes some things that clearly should count as conceptual engineering, as well as failing to accurately characterize the cases it does include. For domain-specific reasons, consider concepts that are plausibly non-representational, these include moral terms like ‘wrong’, epistemic modals like ‘might’, conditionals like ‘if’ probability statements, imperatives, aesthetic terms like ‘spicy’, and much else. Work on the semantics on all these domains at least floats meanings as nonrepresentational. In some cases, it is approaching orthodoxy, namely conditionals and imperatives. Obviously, we do more things with thinking than representing. For domain general reasons, take the anti-representationalism characteristic of the recent pragmatist tradition, such as Huw Price and Robert Brandom. One might also read more formally-inclined work by Noam Chomsky and Seth Yalcin as in the spirit of such anti-representationalism.
Our aim in this paper is to offer a characterization of conceptual engineering that does not restrict it to representational devices. We argue that such an account both does a better job of making sense of concepts that are obviously not representational, provides an illuminating new way to understand communicative devices that also play some representational role. This account makes it clearer why conceptual engineering matters, what conceptual deficiency amounts to, and how it relates to everyday discourse and disagreement.
IN DEFENSE OF DEFLATIONIST METAMETAPHYSICS
In this paper I defend a deflationist conception of social kinds for projects in feminist metaphysics, drawing on pluralism about disability concepts.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: THE ROLE OF PUBLICS IN ART AND SCIENCE (WITH TY BRANCH)
Evolving expectations of publics have impacted how art experts conceptualize aesthetic features and aesthetic value. In a shift from envisioning publics as passive appreciators of aesthetic value, within the last half-century, publics have come to be seen as active and capable, taking on a contributory role in art. We draw attention to a parallel shift in science with regard to how publics were once perceived as passive but have increasingly become active contributors of epistemic value and show this using an example in contemporary art. We conclude that an increased role for publics in denying aesthetic features can help publics understand aesthetic value, ultimately improving aesthetic literacy.
MOCKUMENTARY AS REVISIONISM:
THE CASE OF MARTIN SCORSESE’S ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW: A BOB DYLAN STORY
What does it mean for an artist to use historical footage of their own past to rewrite their history? How can historical revisionism transmit contemporary truths? In this paper I analyze Martin Scorsese’s recent film Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story (RTR) in relation to the fiction/non-fiction divide in the philosophy of documentary film. I’ll argue that Scorsese’s film occupies a unique position vis-a-vis three dominant theoretical frameworks in the philosophy of documentary film (Currie (1999), Nichols (2010), and Carroll (1997)) because RTR uses historical footage (or traces) of its primary subject in order to rewrite that subject’s history while simultaneously painting a contemporary portrait of one of the most influential and enigmatic artists of the past century. Further, and perhaps most crucially, the main subject in the narrative is himself privy to and part of the revisionist process. Along the way I’ll explore how Evnine’s (2015) theory of genre as tradition helps us explicate the aesthetic significance of satire and subversive docu-films, more generally.
AFFORDANCES AND IDEOLOGY: TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL APPROACH TO GENDER
Recent debates in epistemology of perception over whether or not agents can directly perceive the environment as soliciting actions have reanimated J.J. Gibson’s theory of “affordances.” Affordances are properties of objects that agents perceive and which are a function of the possibilities for action for that agent. In this paper I focus on how affordances emerge in the relation between an agent and her environment, and can have normative or prescriptive features. My goal in this paper is to explore in further detail the social dimension of affordances and their relation to Sally Haslanger’s (2012) theory of social structures and ideology. I conclude by suggesting ways my account of affordances can provide a novel explanation of the nature of gender and oppressive social structures more broadly.
REWRITING THE PREFACE PARADOX AS EPISTEMIC ABSURDITY
In this paper I consider an alternative solution to the preface paradox that employs insights from epistemic modal logic. I propose that the preface author is in fact expressing that, while she is justified in each individual claim in her book, she knows that she may in fact be wrong about at least one claim. She cannot, on the basis of this realization, revise her beliefs. The doxastic situation illustrated by the preface paradox emerges when an agent takes an “external” perspective on her beliefs. In taking this evaluative external perspective on her beliefs an agent still retains her “internal” justifications for those beliefs. As such, her epistemic situation should be described as absurd but not irrational. By rephrasing the paradox in this way we can vindicate the paradoxical element in the preface case while illustrating why it is a valuable and rational (para)consistency. Consequently, my approach retains the upshot of unifying the preface paradox with other rational paradoxes, like the lottery paradox.
MEANING AS GENRE
In this paper I propose a diachronic model of meaning that draws on insights from the metaphysics of genres and artistic traditions. I also discuss some upshots of this view of meaning for projects in conceptual engineering.
Please Contact Me for Syllabi
PHILOSOPHY AND COMEDY
Summer 2021 Summer course exploring the philosophy of comedy. Topics to be explored include: the political significance of satire, the nature of parody, ethics and jokes, Copyright law, speech acts, and genres; at the University of Wyoming.
PHILOSOPHY AND DISABILITY
According to Simi Linton, disability is a linchpin in our social, personal, and institutional systems. Likewise, Tobin Siebers has argued that disability functions as a "critical concept" because it raises problems for many of the concepts and values we take for granted as natural or normal. In this class we will use disability as the theoretical lens through which we'll explore canonical issues and texts in analytic philosophy including: conceptual holism, externalist metasemantics, metametaphysics, philosophy of language, autonomy, personhood, and testimony. Upper-division philosophy seminar exploring the intersection of disability studies and analytic philosophy. Cross-listed with Disability Studies 4990. University of Wyoming Fall 2021
THE PHILOSOPHY OF BLACK MIRROR (ONLINE)
In this class we will use the Netflix Dystopian Sci-Fi show Black Mirror as a vehicle to explore core philosophical themes, ideas, and arguments. On our journey we’ll investigate various sci-fi topics through a philosophical lens: what it means to be human, privacy, artificial intelligence, free will, human enhancement, and simulated reality. Reflection on these topics will connect us with important philosophical questions about the nature of reality, meaning in life, love, the relationship between mind and body, the permissibility of paternalism, notions of personhood and personal identity, and the significance of death.
An upper-division philosophy and science fiction course taught using the Netflix series Black Mirror. University of Wyoming, Summer 2020.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF RICK AND MORTY (ONLINE)
In this class we will explore the philosophical themes are ideas illustrated in the show “Rick and Morty”. We'll explore some of the following topics through a philosophical lens: multiverses, absurdism, virtual reality, nihilism, time travel, multiverses, artificial intelligence, immortality, morality, technological enhancement (e.g., cloning, genetic engineering, cyborgs), posthumanism, and more; at the University of Wyoming
THE PHILOSOPHY OF LOVE (ONLINE)
In this course, we will look at love from different ethical, psychological and neuroscientific perspectives. Among other things we will look at what distinguishes different kinds of love from each other, how love is manifested psychologically and neuro-physiologically, what chemicals drive feelings of love and obsession and why it can be so difficult to recover from a breakup. The course can satisfy the Introduction to Philosophy cognate and the Ethics in Society cognate, if you use a cognate substitution form. This is a writing course.
Summer 2019 at the University of Miami
MEANING OF LIFE (ONLINE)
In this course we will explore how various philosophers in the so-called Western tradition have approached questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life. We will also use critical thinking skills to analyze and evaluate philosophical texts, ideas, and arguments.
Some questions we will investigate: What features are necessary for having a meaningful life? What does it mean to be authentic? Does life need to have a purpose in order to have meaning? Is happiness merely subjective? Can there be meaning in life without God? What is the significance of death?
Survey of canonical texts from 19-20th century existentialism. Spring 2019, University of Miami
Survey of canonical texts in modern philosophy.
Spring 2019 at the University of Miami
CONTEMPORARY MORAL ISSUES (ONLINE)
Introductory ethics course cover topics in: metaethics, normative theory, applied ethics; at the University of Houston-Downtown
INTRO TO PHILOSOPHY (2)
Introduction class covering topics in: ancient philosophy, social epistemology, social ontology, philosophy of race, metaphysics, existentialism, and aesthetics; at the University of Houston-Downtown
Broadly speaking, my dissertation is composed of a series of papers exploring a nonrepresentationalist approach to disagreement, with a special focus on social and artifactual kinds. The first two chapters involve detailed case studies in so-called conceptual engineering. In the first chapter I argue that the Disability Rights Movement has engineered the concept 'disability' from a medical notion to a political and social identity. Consequently, analytic philosophers are misguided when they dismiss claims made by disability studies' scholars for being factually inaccurate or ontologically suspect. The second chapter looks at the concepts at play in legal cases involving appropriation art and the fair use doctrine of US copyright law. In that I argue that legal decisions over transformative use in copyright cases determine, rather than describe, how the relevant items ought to be treated, which has downstream effects on which works are properly classified as 'art'. The third chapter argues that aesthetic predicates convey norms of treatment, rather than represent aesthetic properties. As such, disagreements involving aesthetic terms like 'graceful' or 'boring' are more akin to proposals in conceptual engineering than observational reports. The final chapter draws on the earlier ones to outline a novel view in metasemantics, arguing that words are historical artifacts and word meanings should be understood on the model of artistic genres, or traditions.
GET IN TOUCH
Contact me if you have any questions or interests regarding my work in progress, course offerings, or any other inquires.
ecantalamessa86 [at] gmail [dot] com