Steve Levy received his B.A. in 1968 and Ph.D. in 1974 both from UCLA. After nearly 30 years in the computer industry, he returned to UCLA, and has been a lecturer for the past 13 years.
C: When and how did you first become interested in philosophy?
In my junior year, I went back and, over the protests of my parents, changed my major to philosophy. I spent my junior year at USC, but knew that if I was to be serious about studying philosophy, I’d be much better off at UCLA. I transferred to UCLA in my senior year to complete my Bachelor’s in philosophy, and then I stayed on for another six years until I got my Ph.D. at UCLA.
I like to tell the students that USC is a great school. It only took them three years to teach me that I wanted to be at UCLA.
C: You decided to go to graduate school at UCLA. Why did you decide to go into graduate school in philosophy as opposed to another field?
C: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as a graduate?
My first class when I came to UCLA as an undergraduate was Philosophy 31 (Symbolic Logic) with David Kaplan. He got me interested in Logic right away. I like to say, “I knew him when he was a young, bouncy, enthusiastic professor.” And now I know him as an older, bouncy, enthusiastic professor. He was the first professor I encountered here. I had him for Logic and Metalogic. I TA’ed for him a number of times. I have grown to respect him more and more through the years. I love David like a father.
C: What did you do after your Ph.D.?
The following year, I was hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary in Canada. I’m a Southern California boy, and that was my first Midwestern Canadian winter, and it was a shock to me. But it was a great experience there. After that, I had a non-tenure track position at UC Riverside for three years. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and we decided to buy a house there. I had gotten married in graduate school right after I passed my doctoral prelims. My wife had gotten her Master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and she moved to Los Angeles. to begin a Ph.D. program in Romance Linguistics at UCLA. I was at UC Riverside for three years. At the end of those three years, jobs were still hard to come by. The only real nibbles that I got were in small towns like in Emporia, Kansas or Moscow, Idaho. I’m a big city boy and couldn’t see myself living in a small community. That’s when I decided to leave academia and get into computer software.
It wasn’t easy, because I didn’t have the typical credentials. A company in El Segundo, Computer Sciences Corporation, decided to give me a chance and offered me a job in the Database Management Systems department. The week after I accepted the job, I was offered a non-tenured track position at Stanford. Stanford was my dream place to teach. It was hard to turn it down. I can’t believe that I was able to negotiate a compromise that enabled me to accept both offers. Computer Sciences Corporation liked the prestige of having one of their employees teaching at Stanford. Stanford allowed me to teach part-time and arranged my classes to accommodate my CSC work schedule. I had two classes—a graduate class and an undergraduate class, both in Epistemology. The classes met on Mondays and Fridays. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I would be working at Computer Sciences Corporation back here in El Segundo. I was flying back and forth. We took an apartment in Stanford. By this time, I had one daughter and a second one on the way. I’d fly up to Palo Alto on Thursday nights, teach my Friday class, spend the weekend up there with my daughter and my wife, and teach my Monday classes. Tuesday morning, I’d get up with the chickens and fly into Los Angeles, and do my CSC stint. That worked out reasonably well. In terms of compensation, I noticed a major difference between academia and industry. After I was at CSC for two months, my boss called me into her office and said, “We are impressed with your performance. We’re going to give you a raise.” Nothing like that ever happened to me at the university. And the cost of housing was really expensive in the Bay Area. At that point, I decided that my future was in computing rather than academia. I went on to make a career in the computer industry.
My career in computers is sort of checkered. I usually tell my students this story. They hired me at CSC as a computer engineer based on my symbolic logic and the few programming classes that I had taken. I think early on they discovered that I was a decent programmer, but I wasn’t going to be one of their superstars. I’m saying this only half tongue-in-cheek. What do you do with one of these marginal employees who’s not bad enough to fire, but isn’t going to excel? They did what most companies do, they made me a manager. I was a project manager, then a program manager, department manager, director, junior vice president, vice president, senior vice president, executive vice president. I worked up and spent close to 30 years in the computer industry in executive management for various companies.
I left CSC after a while and went to a startup company that, coincidentally, grew out of a UCLA research project. After a few years, that company was bought by a bigger company. Then it was bought by an even bigger company. That’s when it stopped being fun. I moved on to another startup that had me making weekly trips to Dallas. I then started an independent consulting firm with two of my colleagues. But after close to 30 years, my first daughter had long since graduated from college. My second daughter, after only eight years, finally graduated from college. The computer industry is a very high-pressure business. I decided that I had been a grown-up long enough. I had fulfilled my paternal responsibilities and put my daughters through school. I decided to see if I could get back to what I originally wanted to do and that was to teach philosophy.
I made a phone call to my UCLA dissertation advisor, John Perry, who had since gone to Stanford. I asked if he thought that there was any possibility that an old guy like me could get back into teaching. He said, “Let me make a couple of phone calls and see what I can find out.” It didn’t take him very long to call me back and tell me that he had a friend at Cal State L.A. and that she agreed to let me come in and talk to her. I went there and talked with Ann Garry who was chair of the department at Cal State. She said, “Well, I’ll give you a chance. You could teach one Logic course.” I ended up staying there for close to 15 years and taught a number of different courses. I just retired from Cal State last summer.During my second year at Cal State, I saw that we were going to have a colloquium, and the speaker was going to be David Kaplan. I, of course, went to the talk. Before they introduced him, he was sitting in the front row, I was sitting right behind him. I thought I’d reintroduce myself and tell him, “You probably don’t remember me.” I hadn’t seen him for 30 years. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around, and before I could say “You don’t remember me” he said, “Steve! Good to see you.” It was just amazing.
After the colloquium, the department took him out to dinner. He and I talked. A few days later, I was sitting at my computer, and I got an email from someone who identified himself as the chair of the Philosophy Department at UCLA, asking me if I would like to teach Philosophy 132 next quarter. I thought this had to be a joke. My dream was to teach at UCLA. I figured that if this was real, then David had to have been behind it. I gave him a call, and he said this was on the level. I said, “Truth in advertising, I haven’t done 132, which is far more difficult than 31. I haven’t done that in so many years.” He said, “You’ll do fine.” So, I taught that class and I have been with UCLA ever since. I think it’s been over 13 years now.
I have a special relationship with UCLA in that I was an undergraduate and a graduate student here. I feel this sense of belonging. That this is my school.
C: Have you always taught Logic?
Philosophy 132 is fun too. I’ve taught it a number of times. It’s not as traumatic for me now. The first time I taught it I was scared to death every day when I walked into the classroom. It’s much more difficult; you could start doing some complex logical proofs and get hopelessly lost in the middle. But then I learned that this was not uncommon and that when it happened, solving the proof became a team exercise for the class.
C: What is your approach to philosophical pedagogy?
C: What do you like about being at UCLA? What is unique about the department and culture here?
C: Do you have any advice for undergraduates majoring in philosophy?
I think one of the most valuable life lessons that I had was from my father, who ended up having to change his careers a couple of times throughout his life. He grew up during the Depression and World War II. The world was in flux. He told me that whatever you end up doing may not be what you had planned—certainly the computing industry wasn’t what I originally planned on. He said, “You better learn to enjoy whatever you end up doing. Don’t wake up in the morning feeling sorry for yourself. Whatever you’re doing, you’d better learn to enjoy it and be happy with it. Otherwise you’re just going to be an unhappy person.” I think that served me better than any other advice I’ve ever gotten. When I switched into computers, it wasn’t completely voluntary, but I decided OK, I better just learn to enjoy it, and I did! I do get a lot of comments from students saying that this guy obviously enjoys what he’s doing. That’s probably the best thing they could say.
C: Are there any books in your area that you think would be interesting to a non-specialist?
C: Is there anything else you would like add?
Kalish was just such a delightful person. I had Kaplan for my first logic class. I had Kalish for what is now 132, the second course. Then, I had Kalish for Set Theory and Metamath. I think that most graduate students don’t take those classes anymore unless they wish to specialize in logic. Kalish made those classes fun, even though the last two were extraordinarily difficult courses.
Also, when I was at UCLA in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was a very political time, not unlike the present. Kalish was very active politically, occasionally making the national news. I was also quite involved in many of the political activities of the time. There was a day during my tenure as one of Kalish’s TAs when there was a big protest on the campus. Don and I were standing next to each other carrying placards on Bruin Walk. He was dressed in his ragged, old, torn blue jeans and dumpy shirt. Time had gotten away from us and we suddenly realized that we had to rush to get to class. He asked me to tell the class that he would be there in a minute. He told me that he had to go up to his office and change. He went into his office, put on his jacket and nicer pants and shirt. He said, “You know you’ve got to dress up and show your students respect. If you don’t respect your students, they’re not going to respect you.” That was another one of these lessons that I got. That was just the kind of guy Kalish was.
Robert Yost was terrific. I wanted Yost to be my dissertation advisor and he turned me down because he said that I deserved somebody who was young and up-and-coming who would be able to help me out for years and years to come. That statement turned out to be prophetic. Bob Yost said that he was happy to be on my committee, but I think the department already determined who was going to work with whom, and I was directed to talk to John Perry. I think John was waiting for me when I went in to ask him. John Perry was just a wonderful influence and inspiration. The final departmental member of my committee was Keith Donellen, whose sharp mind taught me to always be on my toes.
Another person was one of the first people I TA’ed for. Tyler Burge happened to be observing me teaching a section when I made a howler of a mistake in class. He was such a gentleman in the way that he corrected my mistake so that the students never realized how dumb my statement had been. That taught me a lesson in tact and diplomacy.
These are the kind of professors that I had at UCLA who made it so worthwhile for me. I remain grateful all these many years later.