I was a philosophy student for five semesters, sincerely (and naively) searching for truth and wisdom. I nearly completed the major before I just got tired of its irrelevance. Solomon nicely summed up my experience, "What had originally been conceived as the love of wisdom had become a tedious technical enterprise, appealing more to students with affective disorders than to those who were seeking the meaning of life." With such disappointment in the background, I looked forward to recovering a bit of enthusiasm for Western philosophy, to receiving a bit of its wisdom for my life, for my skeptical spirituality.
After reading the preface and introduction to this book on Amazon, I ordered it. I had high expectations. I wanted to see a professional, thoughtful philosopher apply insights from the Western philosophical tradition to the problems of spirituality for skeptics: the meaning of life in light of evolutionary psychology and physical cosmology, ethics without authorities, ritual and worship and wholeness in the emerging skeptical traditions, belonging and identity and coalition formation in a world of deadly technology.
I am sorry to say that's not what I got, and if that's what you want you'll be as disappointed as I was. He seems to have satisfied himself on such questions long before he encountered spirituality. He is not addressing them in any depth here.
Instead, this book is an apology for spirituality in academia, specifically in the discipline of philosophy. Solomon's project is to address the typical moderately liberal concerns of academia and academic philosophy in terms of spirituality. Essentially he's preoccupied with a terminological (cultural) problem: How can a self-respecting academic discuss spirituality. Isn't it just too trite?
In retrospect, I suppose this is a worthy mission, but it's not one that means much to me. If it's your concern, this book is probably good for you. But if you are interested in the kinds of questions I was interested in, then this book is either irrelevant or superficial.
(I am not sure what Solomon thought his purpose was. He never actually comes out and says, and he seems to think he's discussing deep, meaningful questions throughout the book. And, to be fair, I did pause for thought a few times while reading it. But it's not going to have a lasting impact on me, and he didn't seem concerned that it might. He did seem concerned that he might be misconstrued by a reviewer, so he filled his paragraphs with caveats; obviously he's accustomed to writing for academic journals rather than for a "serious" audience--I mean that literally. Meanwhile, comments throughout the book reveal that his projected audience is familiar with the social scene in Anglo-American academia.)
Let me add two more criticisms. Solomon seeks spirituality in partnership with science, but he really appears unfamiliar with science. Perhaps that's a faulty impression; since he's not really thinking about the meaning of life perhaps he doesn't have to address the problems suggested by science.
Secondly, he appears unfamiliar with anthropology; although he cites and refers to classical philosophers, modern and contemporary Western philosophers, ancient East Asian philosophers, ancient Indian philosophers, and religious traditions from Pacific islands (he wasn't more specific)--he doesn't take any notice of the contexts of all those philosophers. Once again, a charitable reader could imagine that they are beyond the scope of Solomon's project. So they may be. However, he makes a startling claim on the last page, "For most people, the transformation of self may be nothing more than total immersion in a group and a tradition. But for those of us who enjoy the mixed blessing of seeing beyond all traditions and thus finding ourselves without an anchor in the world, spirituality is rather an arduous process, filled with doubts and misgivings, skeptical of glib formulations and platitudes, ...."
Oh my! I submit that Solomon is not seeing beyond all traditions, that actually he is deeply immersed in one, that in fact spirituality in many traditions is an arduous process filled with doubts and misgivings, and that while he is skeptical of certain glib formulations and platitudes, he is swallowing others hook, line and sinker--and spitting them back up in print. In short, he really ought to read some anthropology.
His other books are probably much better. To be fair, he admits that spirituality is new to him. Perhaps when he is more familiar with the topic, and more comfortable with his right to address it, he can bring his familiarity with philosophy to it in greater depth. If he tries, I would be happy to read his book.
On the bright side, reading the book did inspire me to revisit Sartre, Camus and Heidegger after all this time. Solomon reminded me that they did wrestle with the grand questions I mentioned, and that once upon a time I enjoyed reading their work and thinking about their thoughts and learning from them. I guess that's a meager version of what I wanted after all.