We need a venue in which we can share our developing thoughts without worrying about being judged or criticized

Bull session: an informal discursive group discussion; a conversation among a small group of people

I long for a setting in which friends can explore half-baked thoughts, doubts, and questions with no fear of being judged, betrayed, or retaliated against. A conversation that is process-driven rather than end-directed; the aim isn’t to convince anyone to change their view or to reach a consensus, but simply to hear and value the range of perspectives.

Harry Frankfurt (professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University) calls this type of conversation a bull session. He writes:

“The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life—for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say: it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion.

“Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended” (On Bullshit, pages 36-37).

8 Replies to “We need a venue in which we can share our developing thoughts without worrying about being judged or criticized”

  1. Yes! Is there such a place?
    I like the part that alludes to a bull session where the group and the speaker hear how an thought sounds, see how others react to it, but understand that even if we feel a certain way at the time, we may change our minds.

  2. I can remember having bull sessions in my younger days (I am 80). We just expressed our opinions out loud and were never judged or criticized by the other participants. We were just expressing our opinions and ideas on whatever the subject was at the time. Sometimes the ideas brought much laughter but not criticism.
    Looking at the way much of the younger parts of our society functions and thinks today, I would very much doubt that you would be able to have a “real” bull session. Opinions and beliefs are now stated as facts which does not allow for people to speak openly without being “Canceled”.

    1. Ed, you’re one of the few people I know who has participated in bull sessions. They must be a wonderful experience.

  3. I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

  4. To have a bull session, you would need to find a group of people who are humble. So many today are self-proclaimed experts in all areas and fields. To come together as a group and just share thoughts, hear others, to listen and then form opinions and positions based on an array of viewpoints sounds refreshing! Imagine if our government leaders were to participate in a session or two.

    1. Chad, you are spot on. Very few people have the environment you’re describing; I don’t. But wouldn’t it be nice. Don

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