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In one of my previous articles, I attempted to find an explanation of the term image – especially “image” as in “image campaign”. In this article, my analysis will go a little further.
Let’s forget about image for now. You will agree it might be a very subtle idea to explain. Let’s focus on terms like sign, allegory, symbol, emblem, parable, mith, figure, icon, idol. They all sound a bit more familiar.
One thing they all have in common is that they are called terms of the imaginary. Let’s see what this means.
There are two ways in which we represent ourselves the world. The first one is direct: the thing appears present in my mind – like in perception or sensation. The second one is indirect, in which case the thing – for one reason or another – can not present itself “as it is” to my sensibility, like when I remember childhood or try to visualize life after death. In all these cases of indirect consciousness, the absent object is represented to my conscience by an image – in the broadest sense of the word.
There is a whole branch of philosophy called “of the imaginary”. But first, another hint: the whole group of terms I try to introduce here makes the object of semiotics as well. Theories of semiotics have a simpler structure: they study the relations between sign-object-sense. You will find this triangle-structure in most of them, whether it’s Saussure or Pierce.
Based on this idea, we can try a first distinction. Most of the signs send to a significance that could be “present” and even verified. A signal announces the presence of the object it represents. The same goes for a word, a logo or an algorithm.
Because all these sending-signs are just ways to save mental processes, they might be chosen arbitrarily. It is enough to declare that a red disc with a white stripe means “forbidden” in order to accept this sign as a signal.
And yet there are cases in which the sign is not arbitrarily chosen: when it sends to abstract objects, spiritual entities or moral virtues. In order to signify Justice or The Truth, thinking can not follow arbitrary strategies, because these concepts are less evident.
In such cases we need a world of complex signs: The idea of Justice will be featured as a character – an allegory. This character will handle objects – emblems.
We see that there are two types of signs: arbitrary and non-arbitrary ones. The latter have to feature concretely the signified part of reality.
And so I reach the most important part of the presentation: there are cases in which the signified object is not at all presentable. The sign will then refere to a sense. This case is called symbolic imagination. Let’s have a closer look at that.
In Phaidon, Plato describes the afterlife through a symbolic myth. This territory is completely opaque to any possible human experience. The same goes for the parables in the Bible and the moral examples: the Good Samaritean, Lazarus. In other words, we can define the symbol as any concrete sign that evoques something absent or impossible to perceive. 
The symbol is a sender: from the featured to the signified. But the signified being completely inaccessible, the symbol is epiphany.
That being said, the domain of the symbol will be the non-sensible in all its forms: unconscious, metaphysical, supernatural, surreal. These objects, impossible to perceive, will be subjects for philosophy, arts, religion or even magic.
As the object of such a symbol can not be verified, the symbol does not feature it. It transfigures it – transfiguration of a concrete representation through an abstract sense.
The symbol makes a secret sense appear.
Mona Lisa has disappeared for ever long time ago. We do not know anything about her, and yet her portrait makes this absence present.
Of course, there are degrees of symbolism: a byzantine icon or a painting made by Giotto is more intense than an impressionist painting. A painting with symbolic value possesses what Etienne Souriau calls “The Angel Of The Work”. It conceals something from the other world.
Sometimes I stare at David Beckam’s ads hoping that whoever done them had something like this in mind…

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