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Elizabeth Cantalamessa

I am a PhD candidate and graduate instructor in

philosophy at the University of Miami. 

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, 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 significance of changing how people feel and a pragmatist ethics based on the model of a loving tease.

I am a 2022 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 "tall tales."

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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 cat Chrundle the Great. Here we are out camping in north Wyoming.

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



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Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil: Humor as Social Tool

Humor is weird. Consider the ways we use humor to reinforce, transgress, reveal, or challenge social norms and conventions. In the US, parody is a legally-protected form of political criticism, comedian Richard Pryor used humor to challenge racial stereotypes, while the playground bully uses humor to reinforce their superiority. 


Philosophers generally assume that humor is a fundamentally psychological phenomenon, which is neither obligatory or successful in capturing the communicative function of humor. In addition to being a psychological response or capacity, humor is a tool for revealing, challenging, and reinforcing social norms. Further, humor's communicative function is compatible with traditional psychological models, such as the model of humor as a coping mechanism. My dissertation combines work in the philosophy of language, metametaphysics, social philosophy, and aesthetics to introduce a model of humor as a tool for manipulating social norms.

According to my view, humor enables us to do things with social norms that we couldn't do, or do as effectively, with "straight-faced" vocabularies such as assertions, declarations, explanations, and the like. Humor is a tool we use to convey, enforce, challenge, or dismiss social norms without explicit justification which explains why humor is an active component in both perpetuating and challenging discriminatory social practices. For example, to laugh at someone for their hairstyle is to reinforce social norms regarding hairstyles without explaining why one is entitled to do so. If the target of mocking laughter wants to "challenge" the jokester, they cannot pick out any particular premise and the jokester can always deny that the joke demonstrates their actual commitments by claiming that they are "only joking." The successfulness of humor is not a matter of accurately representing the world or the jokester's actual commitments. Instead, successful humor is interactive because the audience must "supply" the missing premise or premises. Crucially, humor enables agents to manipulate social norms in contexts where explicitly stating or asserting them would be too risky, has already failed, or undermines their goal(s). Humor (as a social tool) can be used for both pro-social and anti-social ends. Consequently, humor is an active component of social practices, not just a psychological response to them.

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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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