I don't know what point Goldberg is trying to make when he posts an email from a reader
on "Empiricism". Historical events are exceptionally unique. They can't be repeated. They can't be generalized into a law of human affairs. In this sense Juan Cole is right: only direct knowledge of the individual stakeholders (their positions on the issue continuum, their salience on the issues and their effective political power) will enable one to speak intelligently on "the situation in Iraq."
From a reader:
The *essence* of Cole's outburst is that *concepts are useless*. (Tony at "Across the Bay" flails in the general direction of refuting this. He doesn't hit it squarely, although he does illustrate Cole's hypocrisy in trying to have it both ways.)
It is in no way necessary to "live in the Middle East" in order to be able to grasp -- *conceptually* -- the issues that occupy us there, any more than it was necessary to have lived on the moon in order to achieve the first landing on its surface.
In "The Gulag Archipelago", Solzhenitsyn wrote that "To taste the ocean requires only a single drop." He did not explicate it in these terms, but he was referring to the utility of concepts to human affairs. Juan Cole is essentially arguing a radical empiricist angle, the necessary implication of which (in a *consistent* -- not hypocritical -- application) is that transmission of knowledge is impossible because only direct experience with every discrete detail (grains of *sand*, even) can result in knowledge.
Tony glanced off one implication, which goes like this: Why should anyone pay attention to Cole's books? We couldn't learn anything from them, anyway, because they have no standing next to direct experience of what he attempts to impart.