Elements of the first-principles-based theory of Wei et al. (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 522, 2005, p. 303), Fife et al. (Multiscale Model. Simul., vol. 4, 2005a, p. 936; J. Fluid Mech., vol. 532, 2005b, p. 165) and Fife, Klewicki & Wei (J. Discrete Continuous Dyn. Syst., vol. 24, 2009, p. 781) are clarified and their veracity tested relative to the properties of the logarithmic mean velocity profile. While the approach employed broadly reveals the mathematical structure admitted by the time averaged Navier–Stokes equations, results are primarily provided for fully developed pressure driven flow in a two-dimensional channel. The theory demonstrates that the appropriately simplified mean differential statement of Newton's second law formally admits a hierarchy of scaling layers, each having a distinct characteristic length. The theory also specifies that these characteristic lengths asymptotically scale with distance from the wall over a well-defined range of wall-normal positions, y. Numerical simulation data are shown to support these analytical findings in every measure explored. The mean velocity profile is shown to exhibit logarithmic dependence (exact or approximate) when the solution to the mean equation of motion exhibits (exact or approximate) self-similarity from layer to layer within the hierarchy. The condition of pure self-similarity corresponds to a constant leading coefficient in the logarithmic mean velocity equation. The theory predicts and clarifies why logarithmic behaviour is better approximated as the Reynolds number gets large. An exact equation for the leading coefficient (von Kármán coefficient κ) is tested against direct numerical simulation (DNS) data. Two methods for precisely estimating the leading coefficient over any selected range of y are presented. These methods reveal that the differences between the theory and simulation are essentially within the uncertainty level of the simulation. The von Kármán coefficient physically exists owing to an approximate self-similarity in the flux of turbulent force across an internal layer hierarchy. Mathematically, this self-similarity relates to the slope and curvature of the Reynolds stress profile, or equivalently the slope and curvature of the mean vorticity profile. The theory addresses how, why and under what conditions logarithmic dependence is approximated relative to the specific mechanisms contained within the mean statement of dynamics.