Elizabeth Cantalamessa

I am a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Miami, as well as a part-time instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Wyoming.

My interests lie at the intersection of social philosophy, applied philosophy of language, (social) metaphysics, and metaphilosophy. I am particularly interested in how we use language to express and communicate attitudes, rather than refer to or describe the non-linguistic world. 

I have published on topics including the social model of disability, aesthetic disagreement, copyright law, and pragmatism. I especially enjoy writing philosophical essays for a general audience.

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

I also have a fledging Substack newsletter called Secondhand Thoughts, where I plan to publish essays (mis)using my training in analytic philosophy to explore and inevitably overanalyze my idiosyncratic interests in stuff like Bob Dylan, bad movies, humor, and existentialism. 



I grew up in Houston, Texas. I dropped out of high school but reignited my academic journey 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 while 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 camp, hike, play video games, and take road trips in my 1978 Dodge Tradesman with my cat Chrundle the Great.

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

Here we are out camping in north Wyoming.





Humor and Authority

My dissertation combines analytic philosophy of language, social metaphysics, phenomenology, and cultural studies to introduce and motivate a social theory of humor. I argue that humor plays a primarily social function in enabling the collective acknowledgement of any socially-significant incongruity, and allows us to do so in a way that preserves important social bonds and relationships. For example, we can use humor to convey to a loved one something that might otherwise embarrass them, thus enabling the collective acknowledgement of a socially-significant incongruity without the typical social costs. Humor arises alongside the conditions of possibility for communicating to others: taking oneself to be subject to their attitudes, which are the same conditions that institute genuine (social) normativity. Humor is a way in which a competent speaker can "flout" or break the implicit operative social norms that govern their and others' behaviors as members of a social practice or community, but do so in a way that others can recognize as meaningful, rather than as mistaken or accidental. Thus, normativity is dependent on human attitudes and as such is contingent. Humor is a means by which we can both competently employ and transcend the operative social norms in order to bond with others, canonically through laughter. 

Humor is a type of socially-meaningful or norm-governed performance that requires mutual recognition in order to be successful, just like other paradigmatic speech acts like assertions, questions, and commands. However, a focus on humor reveals that the capacity to discern a performance as an assertion (or as reflecting a commitment to things being a certain way), presupposes an ability to discern "non-assertions" that are nevertheless treated as competent (e.g., the audience laughs rather than corrects or sanctions the jokester). It is an essential means by which we come to discern the norms that govern the attitudes of our peers and by extension, us.

It is well known that we can use humor to express attitudes that are otherwise prohibited, taboo, offensive, inappropriate, or revolutionary. Humor, like revolt or defiance, enables the collective recognition of what is authoritative, insulting, absurd, or incomprehensible without implying or necessitating attitudes of acceptance, endorsement, or resignation. I also show how the social theory of humor unifies existent philosophical accounts and captures why humor, like language, is both culturally-mediated and cross-cultural. I then argue that any genuinely anti-authoritarian society is committed to the universal permissibility of humorous performances.


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.


I diagnose legal debates surrounding the originality of works of appropriation art as practical debates over how we should use terms like ‘copy’, ‘transformative’, and ‘work of art’.


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).  


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.


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 this paper I introduce and defend a pragmatist methodology for projects in feminist metaphysics, drawing on pluralism about disability concepts.


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

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.


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.


In this paper I argue that 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.  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.

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.

Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil: Humor and Normativity

In this paper I introduce and motivate a social theory of humor, which understands the fundamental role of humor as a means for collectively acknowledging socially-significant incongruities in a way that preserves important social relationships. I survey existent philosophical, psychological, and anthropological work on humor to motivate a deflationist methodology for exploring first-order questions regarding the meaning and permissibility of jokes and other publicly-meaningful comedic forms. The human capacity to make each other laugh is a by-product of our essential dependence on others’ attitudes for determining our social roles and responsibilities.  I draw on the historical and cultural importance of humor for cultures and communities that have been systematically marginalized to argue that humor reveals that the normative force of authority is a matter of our attitudes rather than external compulsion.


Courses Taught

Please Contact Me for Syllabi


Summer 2021 Summer course exploring the relationship between comedy and authority. 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.

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

Introduction class covering topics in: ancient philosophy, social epistemology, social ontology, philosophy of race, metaphysics, existentialism, and aesthetics; at the University of Houston-Downtown

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 series Black Mirror. University of Wyoming, Summer 2020.

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty (online)

In this class we will explore some of the philosophical themes and problems illustrated by the show “Rick and Morty.” We'll tackle some of the following topics through a philosophical lens: multiverses, absurdism, virtual reality, nihilism, skepticism, time travel, artificial intelligence, immortality, post-humanism (genetic engineering, cyborgs), 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

Modern Philosophy

Survey of canonical texts in modern philosophy.
Spring 2019 at the 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]