Merleau-Ponty can have only a posthumous relation to cognitive science given that at the time of his death the idea of an interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind was only at its start. In some cases, however, it is not difficult for a philosopher to have a posthumous relation to some idea, to the extent that those who continue to read his texts and to write in a way that continues and extends his thought do so in relation to that particular idea. And this has certainly been the case with Merleau-Ponty and cognitive science. In this essay I shall suggest that the relation is two-sided, and that it involves a double movement, or if you prefer a key term associated with the later Merleau-Ponty, a theoretical reversibility. My primary focus, however, is on the early Merleau-Ponty, and I first want to say something about Merleau-Ponty's philosophical practice in that early period.
Simply put, the kind of investigations that engaged Merleau-Ponty in his first books, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, would today easily fit under the title “cognitive science”. Easily, today; but not so easily at the advent of cognitive science. This has more to do with the history of cognitive science than it has to do with Merleau-Ponty, and we shall see some of this in what follows. But if we understand cognitive science in the very general sense of an interdisciplinary scientific enterprise that attempts to explain cognition, where cognition is defined to include not simply higher-order thought, but such things as perception and emotion, then Merleau-Ponty was certainly involved in that kind of enterprise.