In defence of grand theory

A person's actual situation is never decontextualised but radical specificity causes us to be disconnected, insensitive and fragmented.

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As the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico haemorrhages the refuse of industry into the water, infecting the environment and strangling the oxygen of aquatic life, we hear the echoes of the slogan "drill baby, drill". Now I love metaphor, and reading meaning into the physical environment is part of the synthesis of form and content. Inference is the sole purview of the rational animal.

The current environmental disaster alludes to some interesting readings into the crisis of the contemporary intellectual landscape. For the past 50 years the emphasis of intellectual work has been to purposely move away from anything that smacked of a grand scheme. Correct thinking had to be intensely specific, intensely local. It would be governed by context and never accused of generalising. In its narrowness and specificity it was akin to drilling down to the very particular details of one specific case.

This 'mode' of thinking and analysis is important. A person's actual situation is never decontextualised. We have to account for that. But the contention is that something is lost here. Specifically what is lost is one's global positioning on the map of a bigger picture. Without recourse to a holistic cartography a person cannot make sense of trajectories as the flux of their existence causes positions to evolve and change.

The resulting scatteredness and atomisation of being leads to a type of narrowness and a myopia of sorts. Self is lost, identity is lost, the forest, as an environment, as a larger context, can no longer be seen. But when I say identity here, I mean ontological identity. It is a structure much deeper than the superficial identity politics of swappable labels; for example, citizen/immigrant, black/white, Labour/Conservative.

But to what degree is this merely the reverberations of post-structuralism and its penchant for surfaces and allergy to centres, and not a reflection of the individualistic direction of the past 100 or so years? Radical specificity causes us to be disconnected, insensitive and fragmented. It causes us to be heedless of the impact of our actions and ideas on the greater "environments" that we occupy and share. Our vantage point becomes narrow. To correct this minor glitch a fix, called relativism, is applied. The problem is that once relativism is activated, the lights go out, value is lost and we're all moving about in the dark with a feigned air of confidence.

This confidence however, belies the frightened confusion that somewhere in this dark room to which we have subjected ourselves lays the edge of the abyss of nihilism. While the Quran, in haunting intonations, warns "and do not toss yourselves, by your own hands, into destruction." A superior corrective would be one that joins between these two extremes, recognising the value in each. The need for a map presupposes the mastery of cartography. Case-specific analysis ensures that one's map is in 360-degree relief. Dr Recep Senturk, of the Istanbul Foundation for Research and Education (ISAR), proposes that Islamic 'fiqh' provides the foundations of an alternative social science because of the priority that both fields give to the analysis of human action.

But the system cannot be complete without recognition of a spectrum of universal principles that spans the continuum of time and space, allowing the ability to calibrate "global positioning". Once the holism of the system is in place, and one possesses the astrolabe and sextant to read this canopy operating above, we are then enabled to chart a course. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi.