The Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Department at IISER Bhopal was set up recently with the aim of encouraging and inculcating a humanistic approach and awareness among students and researchers of science. We seek to encourage students to view science holistically as a domain of human knowledge which is not in isolation from, but in productive dialogue with society and culture, and with other areas of human production and thought like creative arts, philosophy and literature. The department has been conceptualised with this vision of foregrounding the interfaces between science, society and culture, and of initiating a dialogue between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The sciences and the humanities were not always strictly segregated into watertight disciplinary compartments. The concept of ‘humanism’ in the European Renaissance, for instance, sought to produce an ethical and philosophical approach that seamlessly combined reason, scientific inquiry, and human interests and values. For many thinkers, the organised and systematic quest for knowledge of the natural and human spheres was often part of the same intellectual pursuit. Pythagoras, in trying to grasp the unity of the cosmos and the purpose of human life, investigated and discovered fundamental connections between music and mathematics; the medieval scholar Al-Biruni was not only a mathematician and astronomer, but made major contributions to the disciplines of history and anthropology; Descartes is not only central to the history of philosophy, but is a key figure in the scientific revolution, whose invention of Cartesian geometry is still of value in contemporary mathematics. Indeed, we can trace the commingling of the humanist and scientific enterprises to antiquity, transcending cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries. For example, the 5th century BCE grammarian Panini’s laying down of the rules of the Sanskrit language contributed to the development of the first programming languages many centuries later; the poem De rerum natura by the 1st century BCE poet and philosopher Lucretius played a pivotal role in the development of modern atomism.

Humanities and Social Science departments in science institutes like IISERs can encourage a valuable ‘humanist’ approach to the study of science, demonstrating that the pursuit of knowledge involves both an enquiry into the unique, distinct, and special, and an indefatigable desire to find order, structure, and universality. The humanities have been—and continue to be—essential in the development of critical thinking, cultural consciousness, and civic responsibility. The HSS department thus aims to foster critical thinking, creativity, interdisciplinary study, and scholarship. It proposes to help students be aware of and ask questions about societies, cultures, philosophy, history, economic and political thought, literary and creative arts, and the relationship of science to these diverse domains of human knowledge.

The disciplines currently represented in the HSS department are English Literature, Critical Theory, Linguistics, Philosophy, Sociology, Social Anthropology, and Science and Technology Studies (STS).