Notes: here reproduced, the notes taken for the philosophical analysis of the song "The final cut" in connection with the notion of ambiguity in Maurice Merleau-Ponty for the 4th evening performance “Music and philosophyFrom February 25, 2015 at the Cégep de Trois-Rivières.
The song The Final Cut, taken from Pink Floyd's album of the same name, can be related to the notion of ambiguity that is developed in the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty – a notion that is partly linked to a conception of the role of language in the constitution of our consciousness.
First, it should be noted that the notion of ambiguity appears in contrast to the notion of ambivalence – which is a distinction that Merleau-Ponty borrows from psychoanalyst Mélanie Klein. Ambivalence is, in a way, the inability to recognize that the same "thing" or person can have its positive and negative aspects. For example, the very young child will perceive his mother as a "good mother" in certain circumstances and as a "bad mother" in other circumstances, without really being able to understand that all these "qualities" refer to the same person. The ambivalent individual moves from one to the other, without really putting things in relation. Whereas conversely, ambiguity is a mature way of dealing with ambivalence. To put it in a very simplified way, it is to be able to fully integrate that things are not only white or black, that there are an infinity of nuances in the understanding of the various aspects which relate to the same person to the same behavior or the same phenomenon. Human behavior is ambiguous and recognizing it would be positive for Merleau-Ponty; it is to manage this "reality" with ambivalence which would be problematic, reductive.
To better grasp it, we must consider two Merleau-Ponty theses: the first concerns language and the second concerns a relative opacity of our consciousness that results from it. Merleau-Ponty was interested in language in various aspects – he was a bit of a multidisciplinary philosopher before this term came "in fashion". Before occupying the Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France, he was a professor of child psychology at the Sorbonne where he was very interested in language acquisition. And both before and after this experience, he did research on language in the arts (painting, literature, etc.), both in the process of creation and in that of understanding the works produced.
Among the traits he identified, let us remember here that language does not work autonomously, but according to a background that we re-enter. For example, in very young children, one and the same word may have the value of different “sentences” depending on the usage – for example, the very young child who says “mom” may, depending on the context , mean "mom takes me", "mom I'm scared", "mom I'm hungry", etc. In adulthood, the contextual background continues to play a role in our understanding, even if habit makes us much less aware of it. For example, if we take the verb "cut", we obviously do not expect the same type of action at all if we ask to "cut the grass", "cut an umbilical cord" or "cut a package Cards". In addition, language is not only words, it is also notably body language and behaviors. If we read for example The Miser of Molière, we (re) grasp that Harpagon is stingy and ridiculously in love with Mariane. Molière does not have to say that Harpagon is stingy and even if he wrote it explicitly it would not change much: it is through Harpagon's behaviors that we truly grasp the avarice of Harpagon and what is ridiculous about his love for Mariane. We perceive it “between the lines” and grasping it seems to us then “normal”, which does not prevent that in order to grasp it we have to somehow mobilize our previous understanding of behavior – and we hope that there is not a miser somewhere who considers Molière's play as a manual to follow. To sum up, understanding is a sort of fusion of horizons. On the one hand there is the horizon of what is expressed (words, gestures, behaviors, etc.) and on the other hand the horizon of our life and our own experiences which is mobilized by our understanding of meaning. We can therefore already see that between what is said and what is understood, there can be play. This is what makes it happen that we may have the impression that others do not could not understand such or such a very particular thing that we lived – or that on the contrary it could seem wonderful to meet a person able to understand.
Here, some might say that it is the language that is sometimes imperfect to "translate" thoughts – or if you want, that there would be originally a real clear and clear idea which would then be poorly expressed or misunderstood. Now, and this is Merleau-Ponty's second thesis to which I want to draw attention before coming to the song, there is no thought without some form of language. So try to "think" that you can't wait until I finish speaking to hear the song without mentally "telling" you. The remark may seem trivial, but the implications go far. Because if there is no thought without language, then one does not know what one thinks or feels without expressing it, at least mentally. And to this extent, language will transform our reality and, above all, our understanding not only of others, but also of ourselves. Let us take a case where it appears in a striking way: the birth of the feeling of love. When you tell yourself that this person you do not find "only" interesting and beautiful, but that you realize that it is more than that, that you are falling in love, there is then an awareness that transforms our understanding – and that goes through language. Because it is obviously not the same thing to be attracted to someone as to develop an attachment – and in this kind of circumstance, when one tries to think of what one feels for the other, it it is clear that language is important. Luc Brisson had a nice formula on this subject, he said that "an experience which cannot objectify itself does not have enough existence to become an object of thought and an object of discourse." and that in this sense "A great love remains as evanescent as an ugly toothache if it does not transform reality in one way or another". If we put this in connection with what has been said before about the language that works with a background and where the understanding is done by a kind of fusion of horizons, it means that our own consciousness is not transparent to itself, that there is a relative opacity of our own consciousness which takes the necessary language work to seek to understand what we think. In other words, you have to try to understand yourself as someone else. And when there is disagreement on the understanding of a behavior for example, the one who did it then does not necessarily have a more complete understanding than the person who observes it. In fact, with the essential game of language, we can consider that we can never say all that we wanted to say, at the same time that we always say more than what we wanted to say. Hence, too, the ambiguity of meaning.
The song The Final Cut ("Cut", as we say "cut" in the cinema – a title that could be translated by the last scene) highlights certain ambiguities, which can be seen quite easily.
Lines 10 to 14 somehow raise the question of the share of childhood that remains in adulthood.
In lines 15 to 26: if he confides without a mask, if he offers his confidence to show even his less shiny sides, will the other recognize this effort of honesty? Showed his vulnerability, will the other respect the confidentiality or will he see a weakness which he can take advantage of (sell the story to Rolling Stone magazine) or will he use it to blame him?