It is easy to misconstrue speculative realism as a bunch of continental philosophers suddenly taking themselves to cotton on to the face that there is an external world. And the responses are predictable: (1) Analytic philosophers have been talking about the external world for decades now. There's nothing new here. Move along. (2) Even Husserl talked about objects in "the external world" (scare here quotes weirdly denoting the non-technical meaning of the phrase). There's nothing new here. Move along.
I've heard these kinds of dismissals multiple times at different conferences and paper presentations over the past three years. Unfortunately they involve both misreading of Meillassoux's After Finitude as a manifesto for some kind of naive realism, and not reading the essays in such books as The Speculative Turn* or journals such as Speculations.
The misreading goes like this: Meillassoux thinks that most continental philosophy is idealist in the Berkeleyan sense and he argues that it should not be. In reality, about half of his book is a detailed attack on the presumption that any philosophical methodology (though in particular he is concerned with phenomenology) could give one a perspective from which we can ignore the Berkeley/Fichte master argument for idealism.** Given this reality, the standard misconstrual is hugely ironic, because it is so often followed by gently reminding the anti-idealist Meillassoux that phenomenology gives one a perspective beyond realism and idealism, which was the very thing attacked in his anti-correlationist argument.
Again, Meillassoux's whole point in the "critique of correlationism" is to try to get the reader to not bracket (as in phenomenology) or set to one side (as in most analytic philosophy)*** the worry about how we can have knowledge of, or even talk about, reality give that our access to this reality is always our access.
The first upshot of Meillassoux's worry is that it is very hard not to fall into one of three camps: (1) some (well, actually a German) form of idealism, where the world itself must be construed in mentalistic terms, (2) skepticism, where we honestly admit we have no idea what's going on, or (3) quietism, where we just try to be better phenomenologists by being much clearer about that on which we principly refuse to speculate (the "speculative" part of speculative realism is precisely a refusal of this refusal, cf. the Introduction to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit on just this point).
From an analytic perspective, what's so interesting about the constellation of speculative realist thinkers is the extent to which Meillassoux's critique crystallizes a post-phenomenological rethinking of major figures in the tradition, especially German Idealists and post-structuralists. Following Paul Livingston's notion of paradoxico-criticism, I think there is a tradition of paradoxico-metaphysics which fuses German Idealist views about Kant's mathematical antinomies and a characteristic take on the Berkeley/Fichte problematic. Here's the meta-metaphysical antinomy:
1. (A consistent, complete) metaphysics is impossible. Two reasons: (A) Since metaphysics have to account for themselves, they always generate Russell type paradoxes. (B) Given the Berkeley/Fichte problematic, metaphysical knowledge is an attempt to know the unknowable.
On the other hand:
2. Metaphysics is unavoidable. Even when we try to retreat into our own minds, those minds are still things in the world that we are talking about, and fixing what we are talking about forces us to talk about the total world in which they occur (Priest calls this the Domain Principle).
Paradoxico-metaphysicians can be presented as embracing both of these horns.**** The project is to give an account of what reality must be like such that it prevents us of giving an account of what it is like. Harman, Tristan Garcia, and maybe Zizek can all profitably be presented as occupying this problem space. On Zizek, I am going to read this book by Joseph Carrow as soon as possible and try to work out whatever homologies there are between Harman, Garcia, and Zizek.
There is clearly an epistemological side to all of this too. How might linguistic, conceptual creatures like ourselves get knowledge of a world that is radically non-linguistic and conceptual? The classical German Idealist answer is to say that we can't, but to see the world as conceptual (Pittsburgh Hegelians get as close as one can get to this while eschewing metaphysics, which is where their quietism comes in). Can one solve the problem while rejecting any simple form of predicate-equals-property idealism?
The original speculative realists all had in common an affinity for HP Lovecraft, and when one considers all of the above, one sees that this is not accidental. Lovecraft is the master of using language to paradoxically describe the indescribable. I think that Harman has been the most consistent at taking Lovecraft's aesthetic success as a test case for epistemology. His recent book on this is a blast to read as well.
*When I searched the title on Amazon to get the link, the second and third entry were to the book Fifty Shades of Grey. A much more talented writer than me could probably make something funny of this. I went through the "Customers who also bought this item also bought" list and there was no sado-masochistic stuff there, though if I were a masochist I would probably more joyfully subject myself to Lacan and Deleuze's literary styles.
**Joshua Heller and I have written a paper on Meillassoux explaining this. Our paper is under review, but if anyone wants a copy just e-mail me at my name 2 at gee mail dot com. Our paper builds on Graham Harman's great book that is about to be reissued in a revised and expanded version.
***Not always set aside. But when people like Plantinga or Nagel raise the question of whether or not naturalism has the resources to take on the issue, the naturalist's response is so ferocious that one has to dust off Freud to understand what's going on.
*****Neal Hebert and I have a forthcoming paper where we argue that different stances among professional wrestling viewers correspond to different meta-metaphysical positions, the highest corresponding to paradoxico-metaphysics. The idea is a lot less crazy than it sounds. I can e-mail the paper to anyone who is interested.]