One (oblique) way to grapple with these questions is by examining the works of artists whose purpose and productivity necessitates actively engaging in the question of concepts. By living and breathing them. And by recasting them to acquire even more unique flavors. Their micro-level of analysis is of course usually limited to single concepts or a category of concepts. But they are nonetheless extremely useful when considering our assumptions about semantic cognition. A case in point is given below - two recent encounters I had with different concepts of water.
Less than 2 weeks remain before the breathtaking Bill Viola Exhibition leaves the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. And Water is the central focus in virtually all the works. Water as a medium that contains. Water as a barrier. Viola's reflections adorn the walls of the exhibition space. This quote is particularly telling:
"Often I have used water as a metaphor. The surface both reflecting the outer world and acting as a barrier to the other world. Without limits there is no energy created; physicists have taught us that limits create energy."
Ted Hughes, who had his roots in Yorkshire, captures something of this in a letter of profound truth, hope and clarity he wrote to his son: "At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them."
But further on in the letter, Hughes goes further to reveal yet another facet of water - its dynamic force and potential to drive and shape and lead. At the end of the letter, he spurs his son on to: " ... live like a mighty river."
This facet of water is exquisitely explored with the wisdom and simplicity of an Aesop Fable in one of his "Crow" poems titled "How Water Began to Play."
We are so far away from understanding this as scientists. The sheer dynamism of evoked concepts - how they are constantly shaped and reshaped. How our conceptual knowledge is an integration of these multitudinous and sometimes contradictory associations ... the contained energy of water as a barrier as well as the raw animate energy of water as a force. And lets not forget our everyday experience with water - that, in contrast, water is also the medium that mixes and dilutes. And myriad other associations.
One of the classic conceptual divisions in psychology is between the semantic and episodic aspects of cognition - only the latter is held to be truly constructive or re-constructive in nature. The former is, relatively speaking, presented as insipid and lacking in contextual richness. But these examples of Viola and Hughes show that these positions are not really tenable. Certainly not in the extreme.
Viola speaks beautifully about his work - both in terms of technique and conceptualization - in this lecture delivered at a UC Berkeley Event several years ago.
A noteworthy BBC Two documentary on Hughes has also been recently made. One that is surprisingly balanced in tone. A considerable achievement given the dark controversy associated with this man.
Another common message to take away from both artists: Things are never as they seem.