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Elizabeth Cantalamessa

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Miami and
philosophy instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown


My research lies at the intersection of social philosophy, philosophy of language, aesthetics, (meta)metaphysics, and metaphilosophy.
My dissertation introduces a model of humor as a
tool for manipulating social norms.


I have published on topics including political speech,
conceptual engineering, aesthetic disagreement, and copyright law.
I especially enjoy writing philosophical essays for a general audience.

Here's a piece I wrote for Aeon on the political significance of changing how people feel and a pragmatist ethics based on the model of a loving tease.

I was a guest on the Philosopher's Nest podcast where I discuss my unconventional academic trajectory as well as my work on humor.

I am also an Emerging Scholar with the Mark Twain Circle of America.
Last summer I was a Quarry Farm Fellow 
with the Center for Mark Twain Studies.
My research focuses on Twain's linguistic pluralism
and the social function of non-factual forms of speech
such as humbug, irony, and tall tales.

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Home: About Me


I grew up in Houston, Texas. I dropped out of high school but reignited my academic passion when I enrolled in a philosophy elective at my local community college. I went on to receive my B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. I was an adjunct at the University of Houston-Downtown for a year before joining the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Miami.


I am a "nomadic nerd" and in my spare time I like to follow Bob Dylan around on tour, hike, play video games, watch movies (preferably thrillers with a runtime of 90 minutes or less), and take road trips with my cats.

My last name looks much harder to pronounce than it is:
"can't" "a-la" "mess" "ah".



Home: CV


Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil: Humor as Social Tool

Humor is weird. Consider the ways we can use humor to manipulate social norms: Richard Pryor used comedy to reveal and challenge racist stereotypes, while the playground bully uses humor to introduce and reinforce their own superiority. Philosophers generally define humor as a psychological response or capacity, but psychological accounts fail to capture humor’s communicative role(s). For example, a parent may tease their child as a tool for reinforcing social norms, and this holds regardless of the psychological origin story we tell. Further, what is humorous to one person or group may be offensive or unintelligible to others, which suggests that humor can perform multiple communicative roles simultaneously. My dissertation introduces a model of humor as a dual-edged tool (laughing at/laughing with) for manipulating norms. On the social model, humor is an active tool for both perpetuating and challenging oppressive social practices, rather than (merely) a psychological response to them.


My dissertation has both a methodological component and an applied component. The methodological component motivates pluralism about (the function of) humor, before introducing an alternative “social model” of humor as a dual-edged tool for revealing, reinforcing, or challenging social norms. The applied component is two-fold. First, I show how the social model captures important cultural dimensions of humor that escape traditional psychological accounts. Secondly, I propose an alternative framework for assessing the normativity of humor. The traditional psychological model suggests that the normativity of humor is found in psychological features of the jokester and/or their audience. However, if we model humor as a tool for revealing and reinforcing norms, then we can hold each other accountable for reinforcing objectionable norms without taking a stand on what’s going on “in the head.” Consequently, if jokes aren’t in the business of representing what we believe, then the so-called “just joking” response is misplaced because it attempts to sever humor from accountability altogether.

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Public Philosophy, Articles, and Drafts

Please email me if you'd like a draft or pre-print.

Democracy Should Be Sentimentalist, Not Rationalist


I survey some pragmatist thinkers to argue that political debates are often a matter of changing how our opponents feel, rather than merely what they believe. I think the model of a loving tease helps show how criticisms need not invoke shame or a feeling of inferiority.

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,

I diagnose legal debates surrounding the transformative nature of works of appropriation art as conceptual disagreements that cannot be settled by empirical facts.

I argue that practitioners working in the interdisciplinary field of “disability studies” as well as disability rights activists have been engineering the concept DISABILITY from a medical diagnosis to a political category and identity. I argue that claims made by disability rights activists and theorists are not describing what it’s "really" like to have a disability, but advocating against biased conceptions of disability. I then show that philosophers are mistaken to dismiss the testimony of people with disabilities on the basis of descriptive or factual inaccuracy. 

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

Forthcoming in New Perspectives on Conceptual Engineering, edited by Manuel Gustavo Isaac and Kevin Scharp.
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 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 authority 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 implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, touted as an important legal component in combatting the attitudinal and structural barriers that impact people with disabilities. I then provide a new set of challenges for conceptual engineers interested in successful implementation.

Pragmatist Feminist Metaphysics

In this paper I introduce and defend a pragmatist methodology for projects in feminist metaphysics, drawing on the work of neopragmatists Huw Price and Amie Thomasson.

Eliminating the Fiction-Nonfiction Divide

I argue that philosophers should abandon the "fiction-nonfiction" divide in the philosophy of documentary film and replace it with Thi Nguyen's notion of aesthetic trust and betrayal. I explore the benefits of my proposal using the Martin Scorsese and Bob Dylan film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.

On Aesthetic Disagreement

In this paper I introduce and motivate a pragmatist method for philosophizing about aesthetic disagreement. I argue that disagreement should be modeled as a practical activity or process, and show how this conception of disagreement avoids many of the puzzles faced by views that prioritize semantics.

In this paper I introduce an alternative model of humor as an active component of social practices, before arguing that humor reveals something deep about the social-institution of normativity more generally.

Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil: Humor and Normativity

Home: Publications

Courses Taught

Please Contact Me for Syllabi

Home: Courses

Philosophy of Language

Fall 2022; University of Miami.

Spring/Fall 2022; University of Miami.

Philosophy and Technology

Spring 2022; University of Miami.

Summer 2021; University of Wyoming.

Fall 2021; University of Wyoming.

Summer 2022; University of Wyoming.

19th Century Philosophy

The Philosophy of Black Mirror (online)

Summer 2020; University of Wyoming.

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty (online)

Summer 2019; University of Wyoming .

The Philosophy of Love (online)

Summer 2019; University of Miami.

Meaning of Life

Fall 2019-2021; University of Houston-Downtown.


Spring 2019, University of Miami.

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Get in Touch

Please contact me if you have any questions or interests regarding my work in progress, course offerings, or any other inquires.

ecantalamessa86 [at] gmail [etc]

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