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Andrea Borghini

Sandy and the Puzzle of the Perfect Storm

By October 31, 2012

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"It is difficulties that show what men are," wrote Epictetus.

Among the most remarkable features of a storm such as Sandy there is the fact that it put all humans living along its path face to face with catastrophe. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor, a smart or an idiot, cute or awful.

There are several aspects of Sandy that would deserve philosophical attention and that would have captivated the attention of stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, or aroused the interest of acute observers of human affairs such as Machiavelli or Laozi. For instance, Machiavelli writes in the Discourses on Livy: "So in all human affairs one notices, if one examines them closely, that it is impossible to remove one inconvenience without another emerging."

But it is not on the problem of evil that I wish to concentrate here. Rather, it is on a fact that will have not gone unnoticed by most: Sandy raised a taxonomic problem, that is a metaphysical dilemma. On Monday evening, after making landfall, the media switched suddenly the terminology: Sandy was no more a hurricane, but a "super-storm." In the days before its arrival to the Northeast, some meteorologists had also used the label "the Perfect Storm." That was not by chance.

The system we have in place for classifying storms is pretty solid; and yet, every now and then, certain storms occur that seem to escape our best categories. A notable example, which would have amused Michel de Montaigne, occurred in 1991. It was still during Halloween. A large nor'easter developed over Canada; however, as it moved towards the ocean and warmer waters, the storm changed its configuration and turned into what we usually classify as a hurricane. Because of its origin from cold air, however, meteorologists could not classify it as a hurricane; hence, they introduced the label "perfect storm;" that was "The 1991 Perfect Storm" or, as some people also call it, "The No Name Storm of 1991."

The ontological difficulties we encounter in classifying storms parallel those taxonomists have encountered in classifying entities such as a platypus. And thus the old vexed question can be posed also with respect to storms: are storms natural kinds? Perhaps they are, but only if we concede that natural kinds have some degree of conventionality.

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