on February 15, 2004
This is a fascinating book. NOT for the New Age "spirituality" group, but for intelligent, skeptical thinkers interested in the investigations of someone who knows Western philosophy well (and a little Eastern) who is asking how to live one's life. Solomon defines spirituality as "the thoughtful love of life" and then asks how we can practice it.
This is a book I go back to and reread periodically because it is so useful, and even inspirational. The "thoughtful love of life" certainly doesn't come naturally to me, but it's a valuable principle.
The last paragraph of the book says a lot:
"In many spiritual traditions, the purpose of life itself becomes the achievement of such transformation. 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 an arduous process, filled with doubts and misgivings, skeptical of glib formulations and platitudes, frustrated with the limitations of the personalities we have worked so hard to create over the course of a lifetime. But if the self to which spirituality and philosophy refers is nothing other than the everyday self, and neither is it just the everyday self, and a tremendous effort to discover or realize our better selves is what spirituality is all about. Spirituality is a process rather than the result." p. 140
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.
on September 11, 2007
This is a great book, but try to avoid approaching it with any SPECIFIC expectations. If you're hoping for a bullet-proof philosophical argument, you'll be disappointed. If you're hoping for a "self help" book, you'll be incredibly disappointed. But if you've struggled with your own "spirituality" or lack thereof, and if you feel like morality and deep meaning are still possible without positing a dogmatic "God," then read this book. I call it "almost" revolutionary because I think it could eventually be the beginnings of a new way to think about spirituality. But it's not a manifesto for spiritual revolution; nor is it intended to be. It's a collection of ideas.
Even if you believe in, say, a Judeo-Christian God, this book is still worth a read. It's an interesting and important exercise to ponder which components of your religion are universally true regardless of the specific dogmas and scriptures unique to it.
As a final check to decide whether or not this book is worth your time: have ever felt deeply connected to something bigger, like "nature" or maybe "community," even in the absence of a belief in God? You're not alone, and Robert Solomon has some very interesting ideas to discuss with you.
on January 24, 2009
I have read Robert Solomon's Spirituality for the Skeptic for a book club meeting, and I don't buy it (the argument, not the book). Solomon is a thoughtful philosopher, his intentions are good, and his arguments are sound. But I still don't buy it.
The goal of the book is to sketch a broader view of "spirituality," one that is not intrinsically religious or mystical, and to include secular skeptics (or, as we more often call ourselves, secular humanists) in it. There are several problems with this project, not the least of which is that the term "spiritual" is so intertwined with religion and mysticism that it is simply hopeless to try to rescue it.
Solomon acknowledges in the preface to the book that he finds "most of what passe[s] as spirituality something of a sham, fueled by pretension and dominated by hypocrisy." Here here, brother. Nonetheless he enlists some of the big guns of philosophy, particularly Hegel and Nietzsche, to make the point that there are more genuine and productive ways to conceive of spirituality. Solomon wishes to "naturalize" spirituality starting from the standpoint that, in his words, "if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness" (p. 5). By this he seems to suggest that to be spiritual is to think about and appreciate the world as it is (as opposed to as how one wishes it to be). Spirituality in this sense is not just scientific or even philosophical inquiry -- though the two are necessary components of it -- but includes an aesthetic sense as well. So far so good, but why use the word "spiritual," which immediately conjures up thoughts of, well, spirits? This is where I begin to lose Solomon (and it happens pretty early in the book).
For instance, the author says that forgiveness plays a role in spirituality. But he doesn't apply forgiveness, as one might expect, just to what others do to you or to the world, i.e., to the agents of intentional actions. Solomon actually extends the concept of forgiveness to life itself, as in: "This is also true when the betrayer [of your trust] is not a person but life itself, when our hopes and expectations have been thwarted. ... It means, through our actions and feelings as well as through our thoughts, forgiving the world" (p. 56). Come again? Even Solomon immediately realizes that this, as he himself puts it, smells of "implicit animism," but that possibility doesn't bother him because "even the most hard-headed materialists tend, in their personal dealings with the world, to be animists" (p. 56).
Oh no they don't! First of all, I resent the "hard-headed" modifier to the term materialist, not so subtly suggesting that there is something wrong with materialism (in the sense of a naturalistic philosophy, not in that of Madonna's "Material Girl"). Second, this is precisely what is questionable about attempting to co-opt a word like "spiritual" for purposes that most clearly are not reflected in its historical and cultural use. One ends up on a linguistic slippery slope that brings him perilously close to the sham, pretension and hypocrisy that Solomon decries at the beginning of the book.
Spiritual is in antithesis with material/natural, and it ought to be left that way; to talk about spirituality for the skeptic is simply not helpful. It plays straight into the hands of mystics and religionists who insist that there is something missing from a naturalistic worldview. There is nothing missing because there is nothing else to add. What we need instead is a new way to talk about how one can have an aesthetic and compassionate view of life, how one can be emotional in the positive sense of the word, and still understand the world through reason and empirical evidence. Indeed, an argument can be made that looking at the world the way it really is engenders true compassion and appreciation, freed of the distorting filters of mysticism and religion.
Still, we seem to need a new vocabulary to talk about the secular equivalent of spirituality, soul and the like. I think that there is a perfectly good sense in which, for instance, I am a "spiritual" person, or that listening to good music or reading a good book is good for my "soul," and so on. But to use those terms is a cop out that I'd rather not engage in. Therefore, dear readers, what would you suggest we use as alternative words for terms like "spiritual" and "soul"? This is more than an academic exercise, you know. When my wife and I found ourselves through e-dating, we had both put "spiritual but not religious" on our profiles, and as a result had to wade through a pile of emails from new age fruitcakes before finding each other...
on November 29, 2008
Robert Solomon, who unfortunately passed away in 2007, was best known for his promotion and clear explanation of existentialist philosophy. Given that existentialism has often styled itself (with the notable exception of Merleau-Ponty) as the very antithesis of naturalism, I was surprised to see Solomon ground his exploration of "spirituality" in a through-going naturalism.
Solomon notes that this slim book is indeed an exploration, for spirituality is an idea he had resisted most of his life and only recently come to see of value. (He attributes this in large measure to his marriage to fellow philosopher Kathleen Higgins, and lists romantic love as one of the primary spiritual experiences without discussing it in any specificity.) He defines spirituality as a "thoughtful love of life". The book details what he means by this, and where he thinks established religions and much philosophical thought goes wrong in its understanding of spirituality and related concepts such as the soul.
There's a lot of hacking away at, although not a complete giving-up of, the individualism that characterized much of his early work. For instance, though in his understanding the soul represents neither something eternal nor something separated from the body, spirituality involves an expansion of the scope of an individual's soul to encompass other people and other parts of the world. The spiritual attitude toward the universe is trust in a fate we cannot control, even if it's certain, at some point or another, to break our hearts.
Along the way Solomon tries to retrieve for philosophy the lead role of investigating spirituality, even at one point claiming that, if correctly envisioned, it could be the most spiritual of all practices. Philosophy as practiced today is largely a focused application of technical reason, so he needs to make the further step of bringing passion and emotion back into spirituality and philosophy, while weaving that passion and reason together as one entity.
There's a lot to think about here for a humanist, a "scientific pantheist," a eupraxsopher, or a Unitarian who strives to see the natural world through a spiritual lens while rejecting supernaturalism. It's the beginning of a conversation that needs many more participants.
In Spirituality for the Skeptic, as in several of his other books, Robert Solomon laments what he sees as philosophy's relinquishment of wisdom and the consequent hijacking of spirituality by religion. In chapters that focus on spirituality as it relates to reason, the passions, freedom of the will, facticity, suffering, society, and the self, Solomon seeks to show that questions concerning spirit--human aspirations, human creativity, human tragedy--are independent of religion. One's spirituality may, of course, be informed by religious convictions, but there's no necessary connection between the two.
Ultimately, Solomon wants to argue that spirituality is about the "enlargement of the self" (p. 123), an expansion of our horizons that recognizes that it's life itself, not something transcendent to life, that bestows meaning. As we recognize, with gratitude but also a sense of the tragic, that a "thoughtful love of life" is worth committing to, our empathic connectedness with the world expands. Our selves enlarge.
Solomon's case for a spirituality for the skeptical has little patience with dogmatic religiosity, but equally little patience with reductive materialists who pooh-pooh the possibility or value of self-enlarging experiences. In making his case, he invokes arguments and examples from an extraordinarily rich range of sources, western as well as Asian.
To my mind, the best chapters in the book are the ones dealing with tragedy (chapter 5) and death (chapter 7). Readers familiar with Solomon's work will find little new in Spirituality for the Skeptic. But the grace with which the book is written, the humility with which Solomon approaches his topic, and the insights which punctuate his arguments, make it well worth reading.
on August 9, 2013
A few years ago, I left a religion that no longer held meaning for me. I had tried for years to overcome my doubts, but in the end found them insurmountable. When I left this organization, I searched for ways to "fill the void" left by my "conversion" to "none." This book was one of many resources that I found on my journey. Solomon presents suggestions for finding meaning in the "thoughtful love of life." While his book is addressed to those with a skeptical mindset, (atheists, agnostics, humanists, other "nones"), it avoids the angry, judgmental polemics that frequently plague books for the skeptic.
I have since found another organization, and am a happy (secular) practitioner. This little book is still on my shelf because I think that it bears re-reading from time to time.
Why not 5 stars? I reserve 5 stars for truly extraordinary philosophical books (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc.)
on March 21, 2016
Excellent defense of Spirituality for those who are Religious Skeptics
on September 21, 2015
on June 23, 2008
This book was really a level above what I like to read casually - not a lot of potential for skimming or chapter highlighting. The author is a bit heavy on Nietzsche and Sartre - he seems to draw a parallel to one of them in almost every passage, but it was a nice twist to see the old guys from this particular angle. In the end, the book was more a review of concepts than any sort of declaration - it read a lot like a dissertation. He sort of bounced from topic to topic, redefining spirituality about a hundred times and never really resting on any particular conclusion.
The gist of his thesis: Anyone is spiritual if they consider themselves spiritual, since you can define spirituality most any way you want to.
I really prefer a book with more of an opinion, whether I agree with it or not. But it was a nice flexing of the cortex.