I am a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Miami and a part-time adjunct at the University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Wyoming.
My main areas of research include: Metaphysics, especially feminist metaphysics, social ontology, and metaontology. Aesthetics, particularly art ontology and metaontology, aesthetic disagreement, and issues related to parody, subversion, and appropriation. Philosophy of Language, primarily conceptual engineering/ethics, metalinguistic negotiation, and verbal disputes. The Philosophy of Race, Gender, and Disability, especially with regard to metaphysics and language.
Metaphilosophy, 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), Ancient Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, the Philosophy of Sex and Love, Philosophy of Science, and 19th-20th century Existentialism.
My dissertation explores a non-representationalist approach to conceptual engineering, with a focus on social and artifactual kinds. The first two chapters involve detailed case studies in conceptual engineering. I argue that the Disability Rights Movement has engineered the concept 'disability' from a purely medical notion to a political and social identity. My second chapter looks at the concepts at play in legal cases involving appropriation art and copyright law. In that I argue that copyright decisions over transformative use determine, rather than describe, how we ought to treat the relevant works. The third chapter argues that aesthetic predicates convey norms of treatment, rather than represent aesthetic properties. As such, disagreements involving aesthetic terms are more akin to proposals in conceptual engineering than descriptive reports. The final chapter draws on the earlier ones to outline a novel view in metasemantics, arguing that words are artifacts and word meanings should be understood on the model of artistic genres, or traditions.
Here's a little something on aesthetic disagreement that I wrote for the blog Aesthetics For Birds.
My last name looks much harder to pronounce than it is: "can't" "a-la" "mess" "ah".
I grew up in Houston, Texas. I started 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, hike, travel, hang out with my cat, play (classic) video games, read philosophy, and follow Bob Dylan around on tour.
Here I am on the Appalachian Trail.
ART AS 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A NORMATIVIST MODEL OF AESTHETIC DISAGREEMENT
In this paper I propose a normativist treatment of disagreements over controversial authored works such as Banksy's "Shredded Girl With a Balloon" and Richard Prince's New Portraits. First, I’ll argue that some works intentionally fail to adhere to established criteria for classification and are better understood as raising questions about the relevant art kinds and conventions. Such 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 term should or should not apply. This is why such works bring with them pervasive, and to a certain extent irresolvable, disagreements. While disagreements over such 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 value of these disputes lies not in amassing true beliefs about the aesthetic properties of the requisite works, but in cultivating one's competency with the semantic rules governing the relevant terms. Further, disputants enact their 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.
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.
INNOVATION IN ART AND CONCEPTUAL ENGINEERING
Conceptual engineering is often framed as the introduction of new concepts (e.g., Scharp 2013, Haslanger 2010). Due to the constraints of metasemantic externalism, deliberate conceptual innovation seems to be a near-impossible task (Cappelen 2018). In this paper I draw an analogy between innovation in the arts, including the instantiation of new art kinds, and conceptual innovation, such as that proposed by canonical conceptual engineers. I’ll first show what sorts of metasemantic and metaontological features enable innovation in the arts, while acknowledging that no one agent is in control of those features. I’ll then draw on insights from my analysis to better understand how conceptual innovation can obtain. Conceptual engineering understood in this way does not entail that the activity is impossible, however, it not something done by individual agents. I conclude that some kinds (particularly social and artifactual kinds) are historical traditions (Evnine 2015) and are better suited for a “metaphysics-first” model of conceptual engineering.
"WHO IS (REALLY) DISABLED?" IN DEFENSE OF DEFLATIONIST METAMETAPHYSICS
In this paper I endorse a deflationist conception of social kinds for projects in feminist metaphysics, drawing on pluralism about disability concepts.
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
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
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