The life of a concept is its function in a system of thought, a guidance system.
Vygotsky (1934) realized that the conceptual structures which inhabit meaning spaces must form an organic system from the beginning:
Concepts do not lie in the child’s mind like peas in a bag, without any bonds between them. If that were the case, no intellectual operation requiring coordination of thoughts would be possible, nor any general conception of the world. Not even separate concepts as such could exist: their very nature presupposes a system.— Vygotsky (1934, 110-11)
Popper (1968) confirms this with respect to science, which builds consensus by means of repeated observations: ‘for logical reasons, there must always be a point of view – such as a system of expectations, anticipations, assumptions, or interests – before there can be any repetition’ (59). Without such a system of anticipations, no act or observation could be recognized as ‘the same’. This ‘repetition-for-us’ is ‘the result of our propensity to expect regularities and to search for them’ (60).
This system of anticipations is inhabited by concepts, each of which can be regarded as an iconic map of the relationships among interconnected feelings and ideas.
A concept is not a mere jumble of particulars,— that is only its crudest species. A concept is the living influence upon us of a diagram, or icon, with whose several parts are connected in thought an equal number of feelings or ideas. The law of mind is that feelings and ideas attach themselves in thought so as to form systems. But the icon is not always clearly apprehended. We may not know at all what it is; or we may have learned it by the observation of nature.— Peirce, CP 7.467 (1893)
We are often guided by these ‘diagrams’ without being conscious of them, and usually without visualizing them; they function implicitly. Semiotically, though, we can learn to contemplate them.